All Blacks great Dan Carter makes winning rugby return in Japan after neck surgery

Ageless ex-All Black Dan Carter rolled back the years with 18 points for Japan Top League champions Kobelco Steelers in his first game for a year.

Carter - who will turn 38 in March - had surgery last March to mend a cervical spine problem and spent seven weeks in a brace.

But he was back to kick off an 18th professional rugby season in the opening round of the Top League on Sunday.

Carter had not played since December 2018 when he guided Kobelco to the title and picked up Japan's player of the year award.

But the Southbridge scion was soon back into his groove, scoring a try and kicking five conversions and a penalty goal a 50-16 win over the Canon Eagles before 23,004 fans.

Carter said on Twitter: "Survived my first competition game in over a year. Thanks to the amazing supporters that came out, and my amazing teammates who remind me why I love this game so much."

Carter told his 638,000 Twitter followers before the game about his desire to return to rugby.

"I've worked so hard to recover from my surgery last year, and I can't wait to step back on the pitch with my Kobelco Steelers family," he said.

All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick scored a try on his debut for Kobelco, where former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith is director of rugby.

Big crowds watched most games in the Top League - which started five months later than usual due to Japan hosting the successful 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Most teams have made significant signings, with high-profile former All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks internationals joining the competition.

Former All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder began his Japanese coaching career by guiding the Toshiba Brave Lupus to a 26-19 win over Suntory Sungoliath, who fielded Wallabies midfielder Samu Kerevi.

Blackadder - who has joined the Brave Lupus after three years in charge of English club Bath - praised Japan captain Michael Leitch, who was outstanding for Toshiba despite his demands on and off the field at the World Cup.

"He didn't play one preseason game but with experienced players you get mental toughness and it just shows the calibre of the man that he can go out and play 80 minutes," Blackadder told Kyodo News.

The newly-knighted Sir Steve Hansen began his Japanese coaching career on a losing note. Toyota Verblitz's director of rugby watched Verblitz - fielding ex-All Blacks captain Kieran Read at No 8 - lose 31-29 to Yamaha Jubilo.

All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock made a winning debut Robbie Deans' Panasonic Wild Knights beat the Kubota Spears 34-11 after two tries to Japan test wing Kenki Fukuoka.

Former Wallabies pivot Christsian Lealiifano kicked nine points on debut as the NTT Communications Shining Arcs beat Hino Red Dolphins 29-20.

In other scores, the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes beat Mitsubishi Sagahihara Dynaboars 31-24 and the Munakata Sanix Blues had a 24-18 victory over the NEC Green Rockets.