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Exclusive: Michael Leitch – “Japan is the best attacking team in the world”

Ever since their famous victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, the Japan national rugby team have been steadily and prudently growing.

Hosting the World Cup themselves in 2019, the country put on a unique spectacle for the rugby world while the Brave Blossoms recorded famous victories over Ireland and Scotland, becoming the first Asian nation to reach the quarter finals.

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With wins over Tier 1 opposition and the establishment of professionalised league system, Japan has been on an exciting development arc over the past decade. And at the helm through it all has been one steady and familiar presence: Michael Leitch.

The 77-cap back-row, who made his debut back in 2008, has been the face of the Brave Blossoms as they’ve matured from a lowly Tier Two nation into genuine challengers to the traditional rugby powers. Shifting how the rugby world views Japanese rugby has been a core motivating factor for the 34-year-old.

“I think the ‘upset’ word is something we’ve got to change,” Leitch told Sports Gazette. “We are genuine contenders; we belong at the top in the Tier 1 category. We’re going to do some pretty special things in the next twelve months or so.

“This is the best Japanese team that there’s ever been put together. It’s pretty exciting what we can do.”

Leitch’s belief and confidence as he spoke was palpable. And he has every reason to be so; while Japan come away from this autumn with three losses from three games against New Zealand, England and France they were only just pipped by New Zealand before frustrating a France side that is unbeaten in 2022.

“That [All Blacks] performance goes to show that Japanese rugby is continuing to improve. It’s a game we could have won. We’ve had a few of those this year”, he said.

“They are pretty much the benchmark of world rugby. Psychologically, they are the team, you know. When you think about the All Blacks, you think about this awesome teams that’s undefeatable. But we’re in a genuine position at the moment to beat them.”

“Our trajectory is pretty exciting at the moment, and it’s only a matter of time before Japan beats the All Blacks.”

Again, Leitch’s ambition for Japan is evident. In his mind, the next level of Japanese success is almost inevitable.

And by charting that trajectory he speaks of, Leitch is highly likely to be proved right in the near future.

In the pool stages of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Japan faced New Zealand in their second match of the tournament. In what remains to this day the highest points total in a World Cup match, they were beaten by 17-145.

Fast-forward to October 2022 at Tokyo’s National Stadium, the fulltime score line read 31-38 to the All Blacks.

And while that victory over New Zealand still remains elusive, the development is clear to see. With the All Blacks in somewhat of a slump, by their high standards at least, that winning result could come sooner rather than later.

If Japan are going to push to the next level and fully cement their Tier 1 status, Leitch was adamant that it will be built off their electric attack. Known for their speed and intent with the ball, Leitch believes there’s nobody better.

“I think Japanese rugby is probably the best attacking team in the world at the moment.

“The pace we play at, you can’t compare it with any other country.

“I think [it’s down to] our coaches, the way they train us, the physical attributes the Japanese players have, the League. The way we play in Japan has always been fast, and that’s why we’re one of the fastest attacks in the world.”

One coach Leitch mentions as a significant part of Japan’s progression was former coach Eddie Jones. Perhaps best remembered in Japan as the tactical mastermind behind that South Africa upset, Leitch, under whom he wore the captain’s armband, considers his influence to be far deeper.

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“I reckon he instilled some belief: ‘if you work hard, the Japanese are very capable of winning at the top level’. To change that mindset is flipping hard.

“But saying that this team is much better than the team from 2015, and the mindset has changed across the board, not just the national team but across the board, from U20s to high school, and all the players playing in the local leagues.”

The next task for Japan then is to find consistency. Leitch notes how the Brave Blossoms need to turn good periods and halves into full game performances.

“If you look at all our games across the last 18 months, we can get snippets of play. If we can make that 80 minutes, then best state I reckon we can go ever further.”

When I enquire what he means by ‘further’, a glimpse of a smile emerges. I ask him if he’s referring to next year’s World Cup in France where they will face England, Argentina, Samoa and Chile in Pool D.

“I reckon we can go all the way.

“There’s no reason why we can’t. If you have the mindset to get to best state, that’s the behaviour you start training.

“Sometimes all you need in big games is a bit of belief. I’m not going to say we’re going for best four or best eight, but I think we’ll go all the way and see where it takes us.”

Coupled with his slight grin and a chuckle, how far Leitch’s tongue was in his cheek is hard to tell. Regardless, it’s clear that Leitch sees no reason why Japan rugby cannot or should not be hugely ambitious about what they can achieve.


  • James Price

    James Price, 22, is an Editor with the Sports Gazette, specialising in rugby. A player in a former life and now a keen Northampton Saints fan, James holds a BA Politics degree from University of Exeter and hopes to utilise this to produce exciting and unique sporting perspectives.