Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden, former Highlanders outside back Ben Smith and Blues winger Matt Duffie have all inked deals to play in the Japanese Top League in 2021, joining a host of New Zealand stars.

Reigning champions Kobelco Steelers announced the addition of Cruden and Smith to their squad on Friday while Duffie will link up with the Honda Heat.

The acquisitions of Cruden and Smith will add to a hefty Kiwi contingent of players and coaches at the Steelers.

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All Blacks star Brodie Retallick is among the New Zealanders on Kobelco's books, as he will return to the club next year for the second season of his 18-month sabbatical deal with New Zealand Rugby.

Former Highlanders stars Tom Franklin, Hayden Parker and Richard Buckman are also at the club, as is ex-Chiefs duo Matt vant Leven and Sefo Kautai.

The squad is coached by New Zealand's Dave Dillon, who is assisted by fellow Kiwi Nick Holten, while former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith is the club's director of rugby.

The recruitment of 50-test Cruden, who will be expected to link up with the squad once he has completed his commitments with the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa, acts as a like-for-like replacement for departed playmaker Dan Carter.

Carter ended his two-year stint with Kobelco earlier this year, and has since joined the Blues in Super Rugby Aotearoa as an injury replacement player, but is yet to feature for the Auckland franchise.

Smith, meanwhile, was last contracted to Top 14 club Pau in France, where he made just seven appearances before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2019-20 season.

The 84-test veteran has since returned to Dunedin, where he has enjoyed non-playing roles with his club side Green Island and former school King's High.

"I'm really looking forward to joining Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers," Smith told the club's website.


"The success of the team over the last few years has a world-class rugby program that allows Kobelco Steelers to bring out their performance.

"I am very competitive and proud that I can contribute to the team. I will do my best to further shine the brilliant history of Kobelco Steelers. I and my family look forward to the opportunity to experience different cultures and lifestyles."

These high profile signings only add to a huge number of top New Zealand players playing in the Japanese league. All Blacks superstar Beauden Barrett recently signed a one-year deal with Suntory Sungoliath while Kieran Read (Toyota Verblitz), Ryan Crotty (Kubota Spears), Liam Squire (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Jackson Hemopo (Mitsubishi DynaBoars) and Tevita Li (Suntory Sungoliath) are all now playing in Japan.

- with RugbyPass