Michael Leitch has barely stepped out of Toulouse Matabiau train station before finding himself mobbed by Japanese supporters. They run over with their camera phones, bowing and apologising for interrupting our conversation. He is a hero back home. They patiently wait their turn, bouncing with a giddy excitement as they exchange a few words in their mother tongue.
As we continue walking towards a coffee shop, Leitch translates their conversation. ‘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. Times have changed. Nowadays his adoring fans even copy his distinctive 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.
‘2019… that was something different. We felt like rock stars for five weeks. Rock stars. It was one of the great World Cups and there’s talk about bringing it back to Japan in 2035. I’ll be 40 something then… I’d love to be head coach, that would be awesome.
Michael Leitch is eager for Japan to show ambition and secure glory against England
Leitch insists that securing success against England would be Japan’s Mount Everest
Steve Borthwick’s England (above) will be hoping to secure their second win of the tournament
‘This time there were 400 people waving us off. Japanese people love rugby now. We’ve got the stadiums, the transport, 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. It’s all eyes on Japan.’
Leitch moved to Japan in 2004, a shy 15-year-old on a school exchange programme. 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 Kiwi, he taught himself 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. I’ve always been different. 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 teammates 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. A lot of people in Japan saw our story as a hint to how society needs to evolve in Japan.’
Momentarily stopping to take a phone call from Shota Horie, Leitch explains how the hooker is two years older than him and Japanese culture dictates that you must not keep your elders waiting.
He continues: ‘When I first started playing, everybody said, “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’re three or four years old and they knew my name. Three or four-year olds don’t know sport but when they started yelling my name out that was pretty cool. My daughter was pretty chuffed, too. It was good to make an impact on Japanese society through rugby. I’m pretty chuffed with that. We felt like the face of change, it almost felt like we were being accepted.’
Leitch captained the team to their historic 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 Japan star says that he has always felt like a bit of an alien in the country
Leitch declared that there is a ‘pretty exciting’ future ahead for rugby in Japan
The outsider became the leader of a team that attacked like ninjas. They took pride in punching above their weight, transporting a life-sized samurai called Katsumoto wherever they went. During training they visualised themselves as traditional 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’s death zones. To get to the top it takes teamwork, preparation, 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, Scotland and Ireland in 2019. It’s only 80 minutes but you want to be a part of something that will make an impact on your life forever.’
A shock victory over England in Nice today would rank alongside the heady days in 2015 and 2019. 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 an extremely 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’re superstars from one to 23. Superstars. Awesome players. They could be the best team in the world but our heart is what gets us over the line. It’s pretty special for a team like us to go up against a big juggernaut and beat them but it’s David versus Goliath. It always will be.
The impact that Leitch and Japan made in 2015 proved to be inspirational for many
‘We’ve lost a lot recently. We’ve had two red cards and I’d say our fans are quietly nervous but within the team we’re confident. We’re flying under the radar and I’m looking forward to the game. We’ve just got to get our mentality right.’
Although rugby has been played in Japan since the early 19th century, the game is still finding its place in society. Leitch draws comparison to Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer that went from nothing to market leader.
Criticism has been thrown at the union for its legacy programme after the 2019 World Cup. There is plenty of work to be done but the top league is attracting talent from all around the world, with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe and Richie Mo’unga heading there after this World Cup.
Leitch is still in contact with England head coach Steve Borthwick, who he previously worked with
‘The domestic league is very competitive now. It’s getting better but it’s still a bit off from Super Rugby. We just need it to kick on and create some momentum because it’s still very traditional in the way they promote the game. There’s no fireworks or anything like that. Losing the Sunwolves was massive for us and we just need to get the balance right of how we develop youngsters and international players. We used to get the old relics from the All Blacks but now we’ve got Richie Mo’unga coming to Toshiba for three years.’
Around 20 per cent of the population tuned into the victory over Chile on Sunday and, according to Leitch’s wife, the result was plastered all over the news.
‘The way Japanese rugby’s going, the future’s pretty exciting. We’ve said we want to go out and 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 number one. Not top eight, top four or whatever. 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. If we look back at what the Japanese team has done, it’s not impossible.’