Champions in 2019, unbeaten in the shortened 2020 season, and on a 13 match win streak, Kobe will be the team to beat in 2021. Dan Carter is no longer with the team but has been replaced by fellow All Black Aaron Cruden, with Sunwolves fly-half Hayden Parker also available.
Former World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick returns for a second season and is paired with fellow Kiwi Tom Franklin at lock. Completing the All Blacks reunion is utility back Ben Smith. Brave Blossoms Timothy Lafaele, Ryohei Yamanaka, and Isileli Nakajima are also part of one of the league's strongest squads.
Steelers have an experienced team and coaching staff, with former New Zealand coach Wayne Smith as the Director of Rugby. It would be no surprise to see the inaugural Top League champion also be its final one.
Toyota is a team looking to get to the Top League final for the first time after reaching the last four on eight occasions. They have made some big-name signings to get them to the next level.
Former All Black captain and world player of the year Keiran Read and current Australian Captain Michael Hooper will make up for the loss of World cup flanker Kazuki Himeno who has signed to play Super Rugby with the Highlanders. A Read-Hooper-Himeno trio would have been a force to deal with and it's a shame it won't eventuate.
Springboks Willie La Roux and Jason Jenkins return as well. Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen is the director of rugby. 2021 could be the year that Verblitz supplants the likes of Suntory at the top.
With the slogan "Revs your heart." Yamaha be looking to keep the engines firing after 82-7 and 69-7 victories in the last two matches of the canceled 2020 season.
Coming second, third, second, third, and third again over the past five years, Yamaha will be aiming to go all the way in 2021.
One of the most recognizable names in Japanese rugby, Ayumu Goromaru, returns for a swan-song season. Joining the 2015 World Cup star in Shizuoka is Murray Douglas. The Scot brings Super Rugby experience to the locks, while Kwagga Smith, the tenacious South African World Cup winning flanker, will be partnered at the back of the scrum by former Munster and Pau flanker / number 8 Paddy Butler. Exciting Australian playmaker Sam Greene also returns to the team.
Former All Black, and nine-year NTT veteran Isaac Ross, leaves the club after falling victim to a controversial Top League rule that deems him non-Japanese, despite having being naturalized in 2017. With an already full quota of foreign players, Ross was forced to ply his trade elsewhere.
NTT has plenty of talent remaining however and will be hopeful of reaching the top four for the first time.
Number 8 Amanaki Mafi is the sole current Brave Blossom, but former Japan international Dogo Maeda is also on the team.
Ever popular Willie Britz is joined by a host of international players including fellow South Africans Louis Conradie, Sylvian Mahuza, and Shane Gates, New Zealanders Anaru Rangi, Murphy Leilua, Sekonaia Pole and Jimmy Tupou, and Australian Liam Gill.
Shining Arcs biggest signing however is legendary halfback Greig Laidlaw. The Scotland veteran will bring leadership and experience and, paired with former Wallaby Christian Lealiifano at fly-half, could help NTT surprise a few teams this season.
A powerhouse of Japanese rugby, the five-time champions were only denied a three-peat in 2019 by the Dan Carter led Steelers.
Sungoliath boasts four World Cup Brave blossoms, including halfback Yuto Nagare and center Ryoto Nakamura, but the biggest star on the team is new signing (and two-time world player of the year) Beauden Barrett. The All Black is one of two major star foreign players on the team alongside Australian center Samu Kerevi.
Kotaro Matsushima has departed for France but winger Tevita Li from the Highlanders is always dangerous, and former Wallaby flanker Sean McMahon brings experience to the side. After that though many of the other foreign recruits are relatively unknown in their homelands.
Sungoliath have been dominant in recent years but despite the presence of Barrett they could struggle to remain preeminent.
Kubota will be looking to former Wallaby Bernard Foley to build on the sixth place they reached in the curtailed 2020 season.
South African born flanker Lappies' Labuschagné is the sole Brave Blossom in the team. Current springbok Malcolm Marx and former All Black midfielder Ryan Crotty are star signings for the team.
Locks Ruan Botha and David Bulbring and Sunwolves' wing Gerhard van den Heever round out the strong South African element of the team.
Another team looking to burst into the business end of the top league.
Eagles’ best placing to date since promotion is sixth. Unlike many other top teams, Canon's two most famous players are Japanese. Sunwolves and Japan star Yu Tamura is joined this year by legendary scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka. Tanaka joins Canon after 13 years with Wild Knights. Fijian-born lock Samuala Anise a Canon Eagle since 2016, is the third player in the team with recent international experience.
They will be coached by former Suntory Sungoliath coach Keisuke Sawaki who replaces former Springboks coach Allister Coetzee.
Jesse Kriel, who returns for a second season, is one of three South Africans in the side.
Canon has a strong Tongan influence with five players (Joe Iongi, brothers Hosea and Amanaki Saumaki, Sosefo Fakatava, and Richie Havili) who were recruited to Japan as high schoolers and / or went to university here.
With the Japanese national tandem of Tanaka and Tamura directing play Canon could have its best-ever showing in 2021.
The Osaka based team has often been of the Top League’s perennial easy beats, but has loaded up on international talent for the upcoming season. New coach, former Springbok Johan Ackerman, fresh from a stint guiding the English side Gloucester, will be looking to change NTT fortunes. Leader of the haka - halfback TJ Perenara is a big signing, as is 2019 World Cup final try-scorer, Makazole Mapimpi - one of six South Africans in the side. Two players have followed Ackerman from Gloucester, hooker Franco Marais and New Zealand utility back Tom Marshall. Another South African in the team is Brave Blossom, Wimpie van der Walt.
New signing Welsh international, Owen Williams, will likely join Perenara, and the legendary Marty Banks at fly-half.
Red Hurricanes look set for a best ever performance with this new star-studded roster.
Gunma-based three-peat champions from 2013 to 2016, followed by a third-place, second place, and most recently a sixth place. This is a team looking to get back to its winning ways.
Former Australian coach Robbie Dean is the director of rugby.
One of the few top teams without a foreign fly-half, Brave Blossom Rikiya Matsuda holds that spot, and is one of several Japan star national teamers including Kenki Fukuoka, Shota Horie and Keita Inagaki.
Panasonic is a team that relies heavily on its Japanese talent, and features few foreign star players. The most significant new signings this season are Welsh center Hadley Parkes and 45 cap English and Saracens lock George Kruis.
Kobe Steelers have shown how a superstar signing (Dan Carter) can lead to a championship, but Panasonic are attempting to show the same can be achieved with a cohesive team built around local talent.
Four-time champions Brave Lupus have been mired in mid-table in recent years.
In the final 2020 Top League match before the coronavirus cancellation, Toshiba lost 57 -0 to Kobe - a result that surely has been preying on the mind of coach (and Canterbury Legend) Todd Blackadder.
Players of note include captain of the Japan national team Michael Leitch, All Black Matt Todd, and Crusader Tim Bateman - who moves over from Ricoh.
With other teams stocking up on a lot of foreign talent, it will be tough for Toshiba to return to prominence.
Third place (in 2004 and 2005) is the best finish Green Rockets have achieved, and a 59-15 defeat to Canon in their first preseason match is not the start they were looking for in 2021. With no current Japan internationals in the squad, NEC will look to players like former English fly-half Alex Goode (on loan from Saracens) to lead the way.
Young up and coming Pat Tafa, and journeyman Jack Lam bolster the flanks, and former Melbourne Rebel Sam Jeffries returns for a third season.
The team has a strong Pacific contingent, including Maritimo Nemani, Aseri Masivou, and George Risale.
South African utility back Benhard Janse van Rensburg joins former Waratah Andrew Kellaway in the backline.
Honda is a team that yo-yos in and out of the Top League and the Top Challenge League.
Relegated in 2016- 17, they returned in 2018 and managed a credible ninth place, their best-ever finish.
The most significant off-season signings were South African lock Franco Mostert and Stormers Flyhalf Jean Luc du Plessis. In the shortened 2020 season, the Mie based team showed they were definitely a mid-table contender.
The Ricoh Black Rams are the epitome of a mid-table team. Finishing between 6th and 13th place every year the Top League has existed, except in 2008-9 when they were relegated.
Like some of the other midfield teams in the competition, they are lacking star power. Three Cap All Black Elliot Dixon is probably the biggest name player on the team.
Considering the recruitment of top players that other teams have undertaken, it could be a struggle for them to progress in 2021.
Cellar dwellers Sanix were 11th, 13th, and 13th in the past three full seasons since returning to the Top League after a 2-year absence. Their best-ever placing of 7th was in 2009-10.
Brave Blossom Wing Lomano Lemeki joins the team featuring fellow Blossoms lock James Moore. The team also features Karne Hesketh 2015 World Cup hero in the shock win over South Africa.
The Fukuoka team started the canceled 2020 season 0-6 and will be aiming for mid table at best.
During an 11 year absence from the top division Mitsubishi lost six promotion matches before finally returning to the top flight.
With just one win and five losses in the shortened 2020 season last year, they will likely have their work cut out for them this season.
The top new signing is former All Black Colin Slade. Fellow Kiwi. Jackson Hemopo is the best forward on a team lacking players with top-level experience.
Mitsubishi will probably find it tough going again in 2021.
Newcomers to the Top League competing in only their second full season.
Finishing 14th in 2018-19, Hino barely survived relegation.
Red Dolphins still has the look of a second tier side. It'll be challenging to compete with the much stronger teams.
- Dean Gutberlet : Feb 20th 2021