Japan Today
Japan rugby star Michael Leitch Image: KEN YOSHIZAWA

With right attitude, Japan can go all the way at Rugby World Cup, says Leitch

By Chris Betros

During the Rugby World Cup held in Japan in 2019, whenever Japan captain Michael Leitch got the ball and made a break, a huge roar of “Leitch! Leitch!” would often go up from the crowd.

Japanese rugby fans seem to have fallen in love with the New Zealand-born star and he with them.

“It was incredible hearing fans in a stadium chant my name. I have really enjoyed the fans’ support in Japan, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen in France,” he says, referring to the upcoming World Cup which begins in September.

Half-Kiwi, half-Fijian, Leitch, 34, was raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2004, at the age of 15, he took part in his school’s exchange program to study at Sapporo Yamanote High School where he became fluent in Japanese and began his rugby career.

While still a student at Tokai University, Leitch debuted for the Japanese national team in 2008 at the age of 20. He joined Japanese club Toshiba Brave Lupus in 2011 and was captain of the Brave Blossoms (the nickname for Japan’s team) at the 2019 World Cup.

Since then, he has relinquished the captaincy to focus on getting fit.

'Best condition of my life'

"I was in a bad place a year ago, even thinking about retirement,” he says. “I couldn’t run across the street. I had to have hip surgery and got my ankles fixed up. Eventually, I got myself out of a rut and I’m probably in the best condition of my life at the moment. It’s all good now. Not being captain gives me a chance to focus on what I have to do for the team.”

The build-up to this year’s World Cup has been very different from 2019 for Japan, Leitch says. “COVID disrupted our preparation and we haven’t been able to play as many international games as other countries. Europe has had the Six Nations and the southern hemisphere had the Rugby Championship.

“But that’s not an excuse,” he adds. “We regrouped after 18 months, and have some new exciting players. I think this team should be better than the last squad. We are getting into the mindset of wanting to win the World Cup, rather than just wanting to compete in the World Cup. That is crucial because the mental attitude has to change for us to go further in the tournament.”

Leitch says the Japanese team is getting into the mindset of wanting to win the World Cup, rather than just wanting to compete in the World Cup. Image: KEN YOSHIZAWA

Currently, the team is in training camp. As part of its preparation, Japan will play two matches against an All Blacks XV team in July, followed by games against Samoa and Tonga. They next take on Fiji on Aug. 5 before traveling to Italy on Aug. 26 for their final warm-up game against the Italians.

The Brave Blossoms open their World Cup campaign against Chile on Sept. 10 and then take on England, Samoa and Argentina in Pool D. It’s a tough group with Japan needing three wins to advance to the quarterfinals.

Anything can happen in a World Cup, though, as Leitch well knows. He was a member of Japan’s 2015 World Cup team that beat the powerful South African side, in a group stage game in England. In Japan in 2019, the Brave Blossoms upset Ireland and Scotland to win their group and advance to the quarterfinals where they lost to eventual tournament winner South Africa.

“The gap between the playing levels of many teams is not as great as it used to be,” Leitch says. “Among the top eight nations, right now, maybe France and Ireland are the two stand-out teams. But in World Cups, upsets can happen, as we’ve seen, and on any given day, any of the top teams can beat each other.”

Level of play in Japan has risen

The level of play in Japan at club level has definitely risen in the past few years, Leitch says.

“One factor is the quality of foreign coaches now in League One. When I first started, there were maybe just Robbie Deans and Eddie Jones, but now we have former All Blacks coach Steve Hanson, Wayne Smith, Dave Rennie, as well as many current international superstars playing at the various clubs, which is making Japanese rugby more competitive.”

This has led to some criticism that there are too many foreign players in both the clubs and the national team.

“I know some people say that, but I don’t think there should be a cap on the number of foreign players in each team,” Leitch says. “It’s a trend now. Many national teams have foreign-born players. New Zealand and Australia have Pacific island players, and Ireland does, too. The Japanese team is a representation of how the game is going internationally. We’ve created a hybrid team.”

Furthermore, some Japanese players are going overseas and are coming back much more mature and tougher.

“I would like to see more opportunities for Japanese players to go abroad,” Leitch says. “Unfortunately, the way the season works out makes it difficult. The calendar gets crowded. I remember one year, I played for three teams and that was hectic.”

While Leitch is focused on the Rugby World Cup, he is happy to do what he can to nurture the game at the grass roots level, by giving rugby clinics at schools and universities.

“When Japan does well on the national stage, that can help inspire young kids to play the game. Look at the effect Japan’s victory in the World Baseball Classic will have on kids wanting to play baseball. One challenge at school level, though, is that the population of kids in many regions is getting smaller and that affects all sports.”

Leitch is not sure what the future holds. But he is settled in Japan.

“I thought I’d miss living in New Zealand but I don’t. It’s a great place to visit but after three weeks, I get bored and want to come back to Japan. I go back to see my parents in Fiji sometimes, but otherwise, I don’t do much traveling. After I retire, I’d like to see more of Asia.”

When he has some spare time, he is likely to be with his mates at a darts pub near his home or at the horse races. He also has a home page at https://michaelleitch.com to keep fans updated on his activities.

For the next six months, however, Leitch is remaining focused on France. And nothing would give him greater pleasure than for he and his teammates to hoist the William Webb Ellis trophy after the World Cup final at the Stade de France on Oct. 28.

© Japan Today

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Japan is going to need more than attitude to win the world cup.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

I give them about as much chance as I would the Japanese men's soccer team winning the World Cup, lol not happening folks! Good luck anyways though!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Attitude is not going to beat the likes of the Kangaroos...

You got your codes mixed up.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Michael Leitch is a legend of Japanese rugby. He has given everything for the Brave Blossoms, has inspired amazing wins and helped grow the game. Hopefully in his final world cup, he gets a fitting send off.

Wins against Samoa and Chile should be par for the course - it is the match up against the Argies the Brave Blossoms are eyeing to win to progress to the Quarter Finals. Play your running game Japan and nothing is impossible!

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Lindsay: The Kangaroo are the Australian Rugby League Team. The Wallibies are the Australian Rugby Union Team.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

Attitude is not going to beat the likes of the Kangaroos

Nothing the Brave Blossoms can do will beat the Kangaroos. That is because they play Rugby League - the 13-a-side code!

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Japan now sits a number 6 in terms of number of players, ahead of places like Australia, Wales and Scotland - traditionally more famous for rugby.

This actually happens in a lot of sports. Given the number of players and huge resources thrown (by parents) at sports, Japan underperforms. There should be more Japanese in Major League Baseball and major European soccer leagues.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Today is the first time I have seen Mr Leitch's name in print...previously I had always heard his name pronounced as 'RICH, Michael'!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Japan are a great team to watch - the way they play is different to other nations, and it makes the games exciting. They're very unlikely to advance to the final but for a nation with few rugby players, they outperform.

However, the bar for getting into a national team seems to be set quite low.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Japan win the WC? Sure, if they pack their side with foreigners.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Attitude is not going to beat the likes of the Kangaroos, the All Blacks, the Springboks or the poms.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Japan did beat the Boks in 2015, let's not forget.

The current rules have levelled the game more than ever.

Attitude is a big part of winning teams, and Japan's confidence is building.

I'd say the Wallabies, NZ, England are not as strong as they usually are, so Japan has a good chance of progressing further.

In any case, under three months before it kicks off - looking forward to France hosting a good spectacle.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Japan did beat the Boks in 2015, let's not forget.

Yeah and right about the same time it snowed in Okinawa too! Dont hold your breath expecting it to happen again anytime soon!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

for a nation with few rugby players, they outperform.

Japan now sits a number 6 in terms of number of players, ahead of places like Australia, Wales and Scotland - traditionally more famous for rugby. The success of the Brave Blossoms has helped grow the game in recent years.

I guess many of these new players are kids, so won't filter down to the national team for a few years.


-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Every Year I collect rugby balls from my community, it is always not enough. So for have I drop off over 50 balls to the Kamaishi Rugby. I see Japan growing as an international rugby force. Luck has definitely not been on their side. The Junior,s ranks are filling up and growing in size and soon I see Japan needing a Referee school of excellence to complement the growing ranks.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Not if they keep playing "old cart horses" like Leich.... long past his sell by date.

He was great for Japan but there is a time to bow out.

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

Good luck Japan.. Do your best..

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

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