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Beating England will be our Mount Everest

Michael Leitch wants Japan to think big in Nice today


MICHAEL LEITCH has barely stepped out of Toulouse Matabiau train station before finding himself mobbed by Japan supporters. They run over to him with their camera phones, bowing and apologising for interrupting our conversation. They patiently wait their turn, bouncing with a giddy excitement.

As we continue walking towards a coffee shop, Leitch translates what they said. ‘The two kids were telling me how they started playing rugby after watching the 2015 World Cup. It’s pretty cool when you hear things like that. They did a good job spotting me with my sunglasses on here in a foreign country. It’s good to know we’ve got a lot of support.’

Leitch, 34, has been around long enough to remember the days when the Japanese public could barely name a single player. Nowadays his adoring fans even copy his facial hair. The Leitch beard became a national phenomenon with supporters bringing black face paint to France to mimic his dark stubble. ‘It’s a bit woolly at the moment,’ he says, running his hand over his chin as he sits down and orders a long black coffee.

When we left from the airport to New Zealand in 2011 there was no one there to see us off. There were maybe five people when we left in 2015, but they started singing some song and security told them to bugger off. Poor guys. When we came back after beating South Africa there were 5,000 people blocking out the whole airport.

‘That was something different in 2019. We felt like rock stars for five weeks. It was one of the great World Cups and there’s talk about bringing it to Japan in 2035. I’d love to be head coach.

‘This time, there were 400 people waving us off. Japanese people love rugby now. We’ve got the stadiums, the transport and the hotels. We’ve got all the best players coming over and Japanese rugby is on the rise. It’s been an awesome ride, but it hasn’t finished.’

Leitch moved to Japan in 2004, a shy 15-year-old on a school exchange. He stayed at the base of Triangle Mountain in Sapporo, sleeping in the spare room of a home belonging to a sushi shop owner. Half Fijian, half New Zealander, he learnt the language and never looked back, finding his place in a society that was often unaccepting of foreigners.

‘I’ve always felt like a bit of an alien in Japan. I still do. I sort of sit on the fence. I know how to work both sides to operate in Japanese society. I like it that way. In Japan, there’s a pathway to success — you go to school, go to university, get your degree and go and work at the bank or Toshiba for 40 years. That’s a successful life in Japan, but that’s not me.

‘I’d rather go and do something I love, like this. Probably 70 per cent of my team-mates work for Toshiba. They’re at work from 8.15 to 5pm. On the computer all day, same desk, and that’s them for 40 years after playing a bit of footy. Not for me.

‘Japan were one of the last countries to let foreigners in to trade. Sometimes you get foreign companies coming into the country and the Japanese people say, “Why are they like this and why are they like that?” There’s quite a clash of cultures and you need to find that middle ground.

‘What the Brave Blossoms team did for Japanese society was show that all these different cultures can work together. We had guys from Tonga and New Zealand who had been to university in Japan. We made the rugby team into a hybrid culture. When I first started playing, everybody asked, “Why are there so many foreigners in the team?” We changed that in 2015 and 2019. There was a bit of a pinch yourself moment in 2019 when I went to my daughter’s kindergarten. They are three or four years old and they knew my name. Three or fouryear-olds don’t know sport but when they started yelling my name out that was pretty cool. My daughter was pretty chuffed, too. We felt like the face of change. It almost felt like we were being accepted.’

Leitch captained the team to their victory over South Africa in 2015, which ended up being turned into a movie called The Brighton Miracle. He was the poster boy for the 2019 campaign, with his face was plastered across TV adverts, billboards and even crisp packets.

The outsider became the leader of a team. They took pride in punching above their weight, transporting a samurai model called Katsumoto wherever they went. During training they visualised themselves as craftsmen, ironing out the impurities through repetition to create a perfect sword.

‘This time we’ve visualised climbing Mount Everest. There’s base camp and there are death zones. To get to the top it takes teamwork, preparation and risks. In our team room we’ve got this big photo of Everest and us taking the first step. I want this Japan team to feel the emotion we felt when we beat South Africa in 2015 and Scotland and Ireland in 2019.’

A shock victory over England in Nice today would rank alongside those heady days. England’s head coach, Steve Borthwick, knows the opposition well having been their assistant coach during the Eddie Jones era. Leitch is on high alert.

‘I’m looking forward to going up against Steve. He’s a very clever coach and a good man. We swap texts every now and then. He’s probably forgotten it all now, but by the time he left us he could run a forwards meeting in fluent Japanese. Massive respect to him.

‘The way I see England, they are superstars from one to 23. Awesome players. They could be the best in the world, but our heart is what gets us over the line. We’ve lost a lot recently. We’ve had two red cards and I’d say our fans are nervous, but the team is confident. We’re flying under the radar and I’m looking forward to the game.’

About 20 per cent of the population tuned into the victory over Chile on Sunday and the 42-12 result was all over the news.

‘The way Japanese rugby’s going, the future’s pretty exciting. We’ve said we want to win the World Cup. People laugh and that’s fine, but as long as we’ve got the right intentions then that’s the seed we need to plant. Japanese people are very introverted and we’ve got to get people thinking about winning rather than participating.

‘I want the Japanese teams, players and kids to know that this team is going for No 1. If we can plant that seed now then hopefully by 2035 it’s going to blossom into something — 2035 is the year, 2035 is the chance to win it. It’s about raising expectations, raising standards. It’s not impossible.’

Rugby World Cup




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