Tokyo (AFP/APP): Japan captain Michael Leitch ensured enduring popularity in his adopted homeland after playing a key role in calming his team’s nerves as they laboured to a 30-10 victory over Russia in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup.
The New Zealand-born flanker, who moved to Sapporo in northern Japan as a 15-year-old and now owns a coffee shop in Tokyo, said he had been “all over the place” in practice in the run-up to the historic opener to the first World Cup in Asia, taken aback by the scale of the media attention on the hosts. By the looks of his teammates, Leitch was not alone in suffering from some nerves about performing to the high expectations of a demanding Japanese public and admitted afterwards that his team was “100%” nervous. There were errors aplenty in a ragged first-half Japan eventually closed out 12-7 thanks to a Kotaro Matsushima double after Kirill Golosnitskiy had opened the scoring for a limited but game Russia side.
The talismanic skipper, who missed a chunk of the year with a groin injury, orchestrated Japan’s jaw-dropping 34-32 victory over South Africa in their opening game in the World Cup four years ago, arguably the biggest shock ever in the sport. Leitch, who told AFP in June that his team’s objective was simple — get out of the pool stages — has repeatedly called on Japan to thrive on the pressure of kicking off the tournament, with the pressure building steadily over four years. “Thrive” is by far too strong a word for events in Tokyo on Friday. But heckled and coerced constantly by Leitch, Japan focused to become more at ease in the second-half after a Yu Tamara penalty and quick try from Pieter Labuschagne settled nerves.
A third for Matsushima, the first time anyone has scored a hat-trick in the opening game, drove the crowd wild. “I’m happy. We showed great resilience to not go into our shell and keep playing, so we’ve got our work cut out but I think we’re in the right spot to take on Ireland,” Leitch said afterwards.
Leitch, born to a New Zealand father and Fijian mother, led by example throughout.
He twice showed nice hands early on, exchanging slick passes from a quick lineout and then skimming one off the top as Japan looked to attack the short side. More often than not stationed out wide when Japan had possession, Leitch showed a good step in after a break by Lomano Lemeki almost split the Russian defence.
The flanker, also a useful line-out option, was on hand a number of times in a steadying sweeper role, showing all the strength needed to resist a tackle until support came so he could fall to floor and the ruck be safely formed. In a country where football and baseball are the main sports, Leitch has become the recognisable face of rugby, his face adorning billboards wherever you look. Along with star tennis player Naomi Osaka, he also carries the flag for mixed-race or foreign-born Japan athletes in the traditionally conservative country and at the Tokyo Stadium led out a multi-cultural World Cup team with roots in New Zealand, South Africa and the Pacific islands. When he was subbed off with nine minutes remaining, Leitch was cheered all the way.
Having led his side to a nerve-racking victory in front of a baying crowd and Japanese royal family, Leitch will have to further gee his troops — still very much in the public eye — with testing games against Ireland, Samoa and Scotland to come.