Categories: SportsSports

Michael Leitch became the face of the 2019 World Cup when rugby fell in love with Japan

Michael Leitch was greeted with fan mail this week as he arrived at Japan’s team hotel. Handwritten letters from schoolchildren adoring the bearded man who became the face of the 2019 World Cup, his image printed on crispy packets and splashed on every billboard in Tokyo.

Half Kiwi, half Fiji, he moved to Sapporo at the age of 15 to learn the language and play rugby. In a country not known for its diversity, he would become an unlikely symbol of the nation’s success.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since I moved to Japan,” he recalled, taking a break from preparations for Saturday’s test against England.

“I had a Kiwi father and a Fiji mother. Those cultures are like chalk and cheese, so I was an outsider in New Zealand and an outsider in Fiji. When I came to Japan I was a bit of an alien, but I was flexible enough to work my way through Japanese society and pick up body language and keywords.”

Michael Leitch (L) was greeted with fan mail this week as he arrived at Japan’s team hotel

He pulls out a pink envelope with a note from a young person whose birthday is the same day and continues: ‘We lost to South Africa in the 2019 quarter-finals, but we would have had them on the strings. I kept asking myself, ‘If we had played against a different team, would it have been different?’ It left a very strange feeling in my stomach. Not happy, not satisfied, because we had lost.

“I really wanted to continue, but looking back, that team did everything they could to win. After we were knocked out, I started going into town for events. You would see your face on all these billboards. I hadn’t paid much attention until then because I was so focused, but, flip, millions of people walk past those things.

Leitch (pictured playing against New Zealand) became the face of the 2019 World Cup

“It felt like I represented so much more than just rugby. Japan was one of the last countries to let the West in and it is slowly starting to integrate. Before that, people went on and on that there were too many foreigners. There are now a lot of foreigners and it felt like a change in the face. It was cool being that bridge. Surreal. It almost felt like I was hired.’

Rugby fell in love with the Brave Blossoms and Leitch was their beating heart. Their fan base grew exponentially. Last month’s Test against the All Blacks sold out and the sport has become unrecognizable from what Leitch knew as a teenager.

“When I moved, we had a field that was used by the baseball team. Half a field. Japanese rugby had died down a bit after 1995 when New Zealand beat us by 145 points. It took a long time to recover as the national team was considered a walkover team.

His photo was on crispy packages and in magazines. He was also splashed all over billboards

Fans idolized him as a player and even started dressing up as him during the World Cup

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“When you played on those fields, you learned how to roll out tackles so that your knees wouldn’t get hurt. All the guys on this team played on dirt fields, they all know how to fall, but it’s slowly changing. After 2019, this donor, a doctor, came to my high school to build an artificial turf field. He put it in his will and a few months later there was this big green field.

“Looking back, I’m amazed at how much Japanese rugby has improved. It is difficult to measure legacy, but at some clubs the number has increased tenfold. It has decreased.

“Foreigners have moved, are married to Japanese and now their children are starting to get it. They are built differently. Everyone sees us as a small team, but we are no longer that small.

‘We are no longer absolutely dominated on the set. This team could be the beacon of Japanese society. We have Japanese, Korean, Africans, Kiwis, Samoans, Tongans. We all come together and work towards a common goal. It’s special.’

Children sent handwritten letters to the star who moved to Japan more than 20 years ago

Sticking to the Japanese tradition, the evolving team travels with a samurai sword currently in their team room in Teddington. It represents their attitude to work.

“We have this figure of a samurai named Katsumoto. We looked at the history of Japanese warriors, how they trained, how they thought about life and their craftsmanship. The Japanese warriors were fast and agile, always on the counter. The English knight was tall with heavy armor, a heavy sword, and took great pains to strike.

“Our warriors were small, but they were the most feared in the world, and their sword was superior to all else. To get a perfect knife, you need to smooth out all the impurities. You have to keep hammering it to get rid of all the stuff you don’t need, and then you grind it. This is how our team was formed. We’re talking about sharpening the sword.’

Barely defeated by the All Blacks, Japan has sharpened its sword for Twickenham. Leitch will face his former coach Eddie Jones, another key player in the rise of Japanese rugby over the past decade.

Leitch has said he would like to see Farrell and Itoje play club rugby in Japan

At 34, Leitch remains a force on the field and will continue to play until unselected. Whatever his role in the future, he has big dreams about where the national team is going.

“I want the Japanese club competition to become the number one league in the world. If you can get the Itojes and Farrells to play against Japanese players and boost the profile that would be great. We used to get the retired All Blacks and now we get first class All Blacks. Your McKenzies, Barretts, Saveas, Smiths.

“One day Japan will beat the All Blacks. One day Japan will win the World Cup. I imagined it. Why not? Some people may laugh, but there’s no point in being safe. I hope the World Cup comes back in 2035.

“The Japanese are very conservative, but we have to be brave enough to say those big bold things. We deserve to be where we are now, so let’s start acting like we belong here.’


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