Former Wallabies boss Dave Rennie restarts his club coaching career when the third edition of Japan Rugby League One kicks off on Saturday.
Rennie’s Kobelco Kobe Steelers, who host newly-promoted Mie Honda Heat, feature an all-star cast, with World Rugby Player of the Year Ardie Savea making his debut, while All Black teammate Brodie Retallick has returned after two seasons at the club in 2020 and 2021, and will lead the team.
Other familiar faces among the Kobe cast include former All Blacks centre Ngane Laumpape and ex-Chiefs and Highlanders five eighth Bryn Gatland.
Visitors Mie, who are coached by former Italy boss Kieran Crowley, have Springboks Rugby World Cup-winning second row Franco Mostert and ex-Wallabies fullback Tom Banks in their starting XV, but are missing injured former Argentine captain Pablo Matera.
At Nagoya, Beauden Barrett makes his return to Japan, and a return to five eighth, after being named by Toyota Verblitz director of rugby Steve Hansen for the visit of Peter Hewat’s Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo.
Top scorer in the league when he played for Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath three seasons ago, Barrett was largely used at fullback during Ian Foster’s four-year All Black stewardship.
Barrett plays outside of his All Blacks teammate, halfback Aaron Smith, while the man of the match from the recent Rugby World Cup final, Springbok backrower Pieter Steph du Toit, is also in action for the hosts, who have big ambitions after missing the semi-finals in the last two seasons.
All Blacks Richie Mo’unga and Shannon Frizell make their first League One appearances as former Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder’s Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo host Shizuoka Blue Revs.
Fifth last term, Brave Lupus, who are led by Japan veteran Michael Leitch, loom as serious title contenders, with Mo’unga’s goalkicking potentially a key point of difference.
They face an underrated Shizuoka side who unveil a new star of their own in former All Black-turned Tonga international Charle Piutau, with Springbok World Cup-winner Kwagga Smith on the bench.
The absence of Quade Cooper, who was controversially left out of Australia’s Rugby World Cup squad, is a major blow for last year’s wooden spooners Hanazono Kintetsu Liners, as they visit fellow strugglers Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Sagamihara Dynaboars.
Cooper returned from injury in the nick of time to save Kintetsu in the relegation series last term, after they won just once in the regular season.