JAPANESE centre Kanako Kobayashi is back in the Exeter Chiefs Women’s starting line-up to take on Sale Sharks Women in the third round of the PWR league at CorpAcq Stadium Heywood Road tomorrow (2pm), writes Erin McRitchie.

Kobayashi returned to the club this season after taking a year out to recover from a serious knee injury. Her first stint in Devon in the 2021/22 season saw her make 16 appearances for Chiefs, scoring four tries in the process. 

She was part of the team that helped lift the inaugural Allianz Cup, as well as reaching a first-ever Allianz Premier 15s final.

The 25-year-old’s inclusion means Merryn Doidge can return to her favoured position at full-back, while Eilidh Sinclair rejoins the first XV on the wing in place of Katie Buchanan.

Other changes to the starting line-up see Abby Middlebrooke join the front-row, with Harriet Millar-Mills back into the second row and Poppy Leitch returning to flanker.

Head coach Susie Appleby said: “It’s great to be able to bring Kanako in. She’s an excellent player with an all-court game and she complements Gabby Cantorna’s style of play.

“Abby deserves a start and Harriet has been performing very well off the bench. She’s very physical and athletic, exactly what we need against Sale. Eilidh suits the style of game we want to play against Sale, which allows Katie a regeneration week as a young player.

“There is huge competition for shirts and it’s important we keep people playing as we progress through the rounds. This also allows us to field a very strong bench.”

Chiefs will take on a Sale side that beat Harlequins 35-31 last weekend; a far cry from the 67-17 defeat they suffered at Sandy Park in the Allianz Cup in October.

Sharks Women boast a host of internationals including Red Rose Morwenna Talling, USA Eagle Eti Haungatau, Italy’s Beatrice Rigoni and Sara Tounesi, plus Scotland fly-half Mhairi Grieve.

Appleby added: “Sale had a very good win last week against Quins. They have excellent players and are playing good, attacking rugby; they have also really improved their defence. We are expecting a really tough game.”

Chiefs Women: Merryn Doidge (vc), Claudia MacDonald, Kanako Kobayashi, Gabby Cantorna, Eilidh Sinclair, Alex Tessier, Brooke Bradley, Abby Middlebrooke, Emily Tuttosi, DaLeaka Menin, Linde van der Velden, Harriet Millar-Mills, Ebony Jefferies, Poppy Leitch (capt), Rachel Johnson. Replacements: Clara Nielson, Panashe Muzambe, Lizzie Hanlon, Nichola Fryday, Maisy Allen, Mairi McDonald, Maddie Feaunati, Lori Cramer.