Canon Eagles have remained a permanent fixture in the Top League since their promotion from the regional divisions in 2012, with a sixth-place finish last season ensuring a top-half finish for the third successive campaign.
The combination of Willie le Roux and JC Roos in the backs worked wonders for Canon last season, with Roos’ 90% kick success-rate the best in the competition. Canon scored just three tries that consisted of seven or more phases last season, speaking volumes of the playing style that evolved around the South African duo.
However, with Le Roux’s departure to London Wasps combined with the signing of Japan and Sunwolves stand-off Yu Tamura, it could all be all change in the back line.
That’s not the only thing changing at Canon with new head coach Grant Bashford, who was appointed in March this year, leaving the club last week just two weeks before the curtain raiser citing personal reasons.
Sunwolves captain Ed Quirk will be a welcome addition for Eagles and one that fills the void left by Adam Thomson, who departed the club at the end of last season. No player won more line-out steals than South African Thomson in the Top League last season (15).
Kobelco Steelers finished the 2016-17 in fourth place and will be looking to progress to the final four play-offs in the new league format this time around with a host of big names in their squad.
Sunwolves and Japan hooker Takeshu Kizu will be a familiar name for followers of Japanese rugby, while Ryohei Yamanaka made his mark on the Sunwolves team with a try in the final game of the season against Blues.
Head coach Jim McKay has signed Australia centre Adam Ashley-Cooper from Top 14 side Bordeaux, complimenting foreign stars Andy Ellis and Codey Rei in the backs. Fraser Anderson and Rakuhei Yamashita both impressed in the back-line last season and will continue to play a pivotal role in the Kobelco side this term.
Steelers’ downfall last season was their kicking – recording the lowest conversion-rate in the league last term (67%) after lowly Toyota Industries Shuttles (67%). A competent kicker could be the difference between a top four finish and a season to forget.
Kobelco were quick out of the blocks in 2016-17, with 33% of their total tries coming in the first 20 minutes of games last season. With the overseas and domestic arrivals this season, they should comfortably have the strength in-depth in the squad to maintain that pace over the full 80.
The appointment of Jake White, who guided South Africa to the 2007 Rugby World Cup, is somewhat of a coup for Toyota Verblitz, who ended the 2016-17 Top League campaign in a disappointing 8th place.
White has brought fellow South Africans Jason Jenkins, Lionel Cronje, Gio Aplon and Juan Smith to Toyota, also acquiring the services of hotly-tipped Japan scrum half Kaito Shigeno from NEC Green Rockets. Jenkins and Smith will compliment prop Ruan Smith as part of a formidable pack that saw Verblitz concede a league best two tries from scrums last season.
One issues that White will have had to attend to in pre-season will be Verblitz’s defence. Only relegated side Honda Heat (78%) had a lower success-rate in the tackle than Toyota Verblitz last season.
If White can ensure that the new faces gel with the existing members in the Verblitz squad, then expect them to pose a real challenge in the 2017-18 season.
NEC Green Rockets have struggled in recent years, finishing in bottom half of the table in each of the last three campaigns having finished in the top half of the table in all but one of the previous 11 top-flight seasons.
NEC lacked penetrative power and creativity in the backs last season, beating fewer opposing defenders per game last term than any other team (15.7). The departures of Japan and Sunwolves duo Yu Tamura and Kaito Shigeno to Canon and Toyota Verblitz respectively will be huge blow for the Chiba-based side this term.
Winger Teruya Goto will be the player to watch in the backs this season after being called up to the Sunwolves Super Rugby squad this term. Only two players averaged more metres made in the Top League last season than the former Japan sevens man.
Head coach Peter Russell will want to address his side’s poor discipline that saw them concede the most penalties per game in the Top League (10.9). If not, it could be another miserable season for Green Rockets.
NTT Communications Shining Arcs achieve their best ever Top League finish last season after ending the campaign in fifth, and will be aiming to break into the top four championship round this year.
With a strong pack consisting of Sunwolves’ Shokei Kin and Willie Britz, along with Melbourne Rebels’ Amanaki Mafi, forwards coach Naoya Okubo will be keen to address problems in the scrum that saw the side post the lowest scrum success-rate in the Top League last season (88%).
Elton Jantjies, who finished top points’ scorer in Super Rugby this season, will start at no.10, alternating with Sunwolves stand off Jumpei Ogura. Elsewhere in the backs, head coach Dave Penney will be praying that young centre Takuya Ishibashi maintains his fine form last season, that saw him beat the second-most defenders in the Top League in 2016-17.
Ishibashi could be one of many players that Japan head coach Jamie Joseph casts an eagle eye on ahead of the November tests.
Kubota will play their fifth consecutive Top League season in 2017-18, having remained a constant in the competition after their promotion back to the top flight in 2013.
Head coach Frans Ludeke will look to his fellow countrymen Louis Fouche and Lionel Mapoe for creativeness in the backs. Pieter Labuschagne will be the prominent figure in the pack, having made more tackles than any other player in the Top League last season (198 – at least 24 more than any other player).
The breakdown was one of Kubota’s strengths last season, with Labuschagne (20) and Kubota captain Harumichi Tatekawa (19) leading the league in terms of turnovers won last term. Indeed, no team averaged more successful rucks than Kubota last season (90).
However, Ludeke and Kubota need to use the ball more effectively than they did last season, and place more faith in their back-line instead of kicking in play for territory.
Kintetsu endured a troublesome 2016-17 Top League season, avoiding relegation only by virtue of the play-off with a 47-0 win over Kyuden Voltex after finishing 13th in the regular season.
Kintetsu averaged the fewest passes per game in the Top League last term, while they were in possession for less than 14 minutes/game on average – the lowest in the competition. They also recorded the lowest tackle-success rate in the Top League last season (78%).
Head coach Akira Tsuboi has to make improvements in his second season in the role or face the boot next season.
New Zealand Sevens player Iopu Iopu Aso has joined ahead of the new season, while strengthening the backline with the arrivals of former Force player Semisi Masirewa, Phillipines international Daniel Ricky Garcia and Ruan Combrinck from Lions to compensate for the loss of star centre Andre Taylor.
Toyota Industries Shuttles will be hoping for a considerable improvement on the previous campaign when they narrowly edged Mitsubishi Dynaboars 33-22 in the promotion/relegation play-off to secure a fifth consecutive season in the Top League.
New head coach Leon Holden, promoted from forwards coach, has a big task on his hands this season to ensure that Shuttles don’t endure an equally miserable 2017-18 campaign.
Francois Brummer has joined from Bulls and will provide competition at no.10 for young Sam Greene and captain Manato Hasegawa. Australian no.8 Peter Kimlin, meanwhile, will add much needed experience to Shuttles’ back row.
This will be Sanix’s 12th season in the Top League after they comfortably secured their top-flight status last campaign with an 11th-placed finish having yo-yoed between the Top League and regional leagues in recent years.
Two fresh faces at Sanix for the 2017-18 season are centres Andre Esterhuizen, who joins from Sharks, and Andre Taylor, who made the move south from Kintetsu Liners. The Kyushu-based outfit lacked ruthlessness sometimes last season and failed to kill off games, reflected in the fact that they were the only club alongside Honda Heat not to pick up a try bonus point.
Sanix’s biggest downfall last season, however, was in the lineout. They won just 75% of their own throws, the lowest lineout success-rate in the league by far, losing 2.8 throws on average per game last term. Former Highlanders and Crusaders hooker Jason McDonald has been promoted from scrum coach to forwards coach for the 2017-18 season, taking over from Hare Makiri, and will be looking to address the issue.
Head coach: Earl Va’a
Captain: Kota Yamashita
2016-17 position: 14th
Stadium: Level Five Stadium, Fukuoka
‘Better than before’ is Coca-Cola Red Sparks’ team slogan for the 2017-18 season, justified by a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them narrowly avoid relegation with a 22-17 play-off win against Hino Red Dolphins.
2016-17 was the fourth consecutive season that Coca-Cola were forced to take part in the promotion-relegation play-off, finishing in 14th place in each of those four campaigns. Consistent, at least.
New head coach (also doubling up as backs coach) Earle Va’a has brought former All Blacks and Wasps back row Ross Filipo on board as forwards coach to build upon Coca-Cola’s super work in the scrum last season that saw them boast the highest scrum success-rate in the Top League (99.2%).
Tackling was an issue for Coca-Cola last season, with no side averaging more missed tackles per game than them last term (27.8) and head coach Va’a will have addressed the issue in pre-season.
Brave Blossoms centres Timothy Lafaele and William Tupou played alongside each other for Sunwolves in Super Rugby this season, and will once again be the standout names on the teamsheet.
One to watch: Timothy Lafaele
Lafaele was one of Sunwolves' top performers in Super Rugby this season and stole the headlines with a remarkable hat-trick of tries against Blues in Tokyo. He made more carries (126), metres (583), offloads (13) and beat more defenders (46) than any other Coca-Cola player in the Top League last season