The 2014-2015 Top League season kicks off Friday with a plethora of new world-class coaches and players and the added bonus of Rugby World Cup places to play for.
The Panasonic Wild Knights, the defending champions, get things rolling by taking on Toshiba Brave Lupus in Pool A in Tokyo, while NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes play Kintetsu Liners in Pool B in Osaka. There are four more games on Saturday and two on Sunday as the league once again goes with a two-stage, two-pool format.
“It’s going to be exciting. Toshiba first up are a tough assignment,” Panasonic coach Robbie Deans said at the season launch earlier this week. “Our last game against them was the Japan Cup final and that was a very good contest. We’ll get an indication Friday night how good the Top League is going to be this season.”
Former Wallabies and Crusaders coach Deans — whose input last season as an adviser to the Wild Knights helped the club win the league and cup double — is one of eight foreign head coaches in the league.
Former Munster coach Rob Penney has taken over at NTT Communications Shining Arcs, while former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold is the new man in charge at Kobe Kobelco Steelers.
“It’s a great indication of the quality of the Top League to have coaches like Rob come here to coach,” Deans said.
Andy Friend has moved from Canon to Suntory Sungoliath with Zane Hilton taking over at the Eagles. Former Melbourne Rebels coach Damien Hill is in the hot seat at Ricoh Black Rams, while Aussie World Cup winner Toutai Kefu and former All Black Filo Tiatia remain with Kubota Spears and Toyota Verblitz, respectively.
The list of foreign players in the league is even more impressive and reads like a who’s who of Super Rugby.
Schalk Burger, Andy Ellis, Francois Steyn, Nick Cummins, Tanerau Latimer and Keegan Daniel are just some of the players to have put pen to paper for Japanese sides in the last few months, joining established stars such as Rugby World Cup winners Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, JP Pietersen, Richard Kahui, Isaia Toeva and Adam Thomson.
Meanwhile, Nemani Nadolo returns to NEC Green Rockets after a standout season for the Crusaders during which he made a mockery of claims that going to Japan marks the end of a player’s career.
The recent 10-match winning run by the Japan national team is also an indication of the rise in playing standards, and the local players will be doing all they can this season to impress head coach Eddie Jones as he looks to finalize his squad for Rugby World Cup 2015.
Gold, who came to Kobe from English Premiership side Bath, has certainly been impressed during his short time with the Steelers.
“The Japanese players are very coachable,” he said. “They are a very enthusiastic and bright bunch and are quick to pick things up. They are like sponges and suck up the information. It’s been a bloody joy.”
Penney admitted that coming from the tribe-like supporters of Munster to the corporate-based NTT was “like chalk and cheese.”
But he said he was pleasantly surprised by the environment and the desire of the players and club to grow.
“There is so much potential and talent here,” he said. “The young blokes just need some direction and support.”
The first stage reaches its conclusion on Oct. 19, with the top four teams from each pool joining together in the second half of the season to eventually determine the league champion, while the bottom four sides from each pool form a second group to decide which side is relegated and which teams enter the promotion/relegation playoffs.