Rugby: Carter missing from Kobe line-up as Top League gets ready for kick off

Japanese rugby fans will have to wait at least another week to see Dan Carter on the playing field after he was left out of the Kobe Kobelco Steelers side for Friday’s Japan Rugby Top League opener against NTT Communications Shining Arcs.

The club would not comment on why the three-time World Player of the Year, who moved to Japan in July from Racing 92 of Paris, will be watching the season opener from the stands at Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium. But the New Zealander failed to appear in any of the Steelers’ preseason games, having suffered a hamstring injury in May that kept him out of the European Champions Cup final.

The Steelers are hoping the 36-year-old Carter and former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith will help the team that won seven straight All-Japan titles from 1989 to 1995 regain their position at the top of Japanese rugby following a disappointing barren run dating back to the 2003-2004 season when they were Top League champions in its inaugural season.

Carter and Smith are both two-time Rugby World Cup winners with the coach, who is known as «The Professor», engineering the All Blacks playing style that Carter ran so effectively in the No. 10 jersey.

Carter has been brought in on a two-year contract while Smith has recovered from prostate cancer and is set to combine his work in Kobe, where he is director of rugby, with a role with the Italian national team.

«Wayne Smith has given a real edge to the group, which is what we needed and that has flowed through the entire team,» Kobe scrumhalf and co-captain Andy Ellis said recently at the Top League season launch.

«He knows what he is doing and knows how to make a good team culture. The boys enjoy having him at the club and hopefully it will pay off.»

The 34-year-old Ellis is even more qualified to talk about Carter, having spent so many years playing alongside him for both the Crusaders and the All Blacks.

«Dan has been great since he got here,» he said. «The Japanese players were a little nervous wondering what he was like but he has worked hard to learn their names. He’s passionate about winning and is working hard to get back on the field.»

Ellis’ view is shared by Shining Arcs coach Rob Penney, who knows Carter from their days together with Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island.

«It’s a great tribute that Dan Carter wants to end his career in Japan,» Penney said.

«He is a very special player. He has an ability to see things quickly and his decision making is crisp. He is tough and he has never shied away from making a tackle or hitting a ruck. But most of all it’s his vision and temperament. He is very team orientated and loves his team like family.»

Such is the depth at Kobe, however, that Carter is not guaranteed possession of the No. 10 jersey with Super Rugby’s in-form flyhalf Hayden Parker also moving to Hyogo Prefecture in the offseason following a great season with the Sunwolves.

Trying to accommodate both players is a challenge new head coach Dave Dillon is relishing.

«That’s a possible combination we will look at,» Dillon said when asked by Kyodo News if there were thoughts of playing Parker (who starts at flyhalf on Friday) at 10 and Carter at 12.

«Both are high quality players and have fitted really well into the group in a short time.»

«Dan brings a lot of calmness and confidence to the group. He’s so down to earth, such a hard worker and a meticulous planner in his preparation and that’s really rubbing off on the boys.»

«And Hayden is the in-form kicker in Super Rugby but he’s also very good at his position as well. So (I’m) really pleased to have both of those boys.»

Dillon, who moved to Kobe in the offseason from NEC Green Rockets where he was assistant coach, admitted that keeping players happy would be a challenge given the shortness of the season (seven round-robin pool games and three rounds of playoffs) and the (albeit increased) limit on how many foreigners can play at any one time.

«But if you’re honest and direct with your players around that, they may not like the decision but we have a thing around the team — ‘Team first, second and third,’ so hopefully the work we have done in the preseason will navigate around those issues.»

Friday’s opening games also see Canon Eagles play Toshiba Brave Lupus, newly promoted Hino Red Dolphins up against Munakata Sanix Blues, and Panasonic Wild Knights face Kubota Spears. There are a further four games on Saturday.

All — Kyodo News+

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