Tireless Michael Leitch leads evolving Japan side for another run at England

There is a hill in Sapporo called Sankakuyama, or Triangle mountain, but over the road at Yamanote high school they call it Michael Leitch’s playground. When Leitch was a student at Yamanote he used to run up it every day after training. It takes most kids 30 minutes – it’s so steep they cover bits of it on their hands and feet. By the end of his time there, Leitch was covering it in 15 minutes. Eddie Jones, who first met Leitch when he was coaching him at Tokai University, was talking about it this week. England’s head coach is still in awe of Leitch’s work ethic. “He’s a great player,” Jones said, “and a great man”.

The last time Leitch lined up against England, in 2018, the “great man” made a playground of Twickenham too. He tore England apart, scored one try by beating both Danny Care and Elliot Daly, and almost got another. Leitch made as many line breaks on his own as England’s players managed between them. Japan led 15-10 at half-time, and though they ended up losing 35-15, England were so badly outplayed that the game effectively finished the Test careers of a bunch of Jones’s players in it. Four years later Leitch, 34, is back again. You can bet he will be much the same hard-charging, hard-hitting, player as ever.

The team he is playing with, though, is a little different to the one that came over in 2018. “Japanese rugby has always been about playing with speed and skill, and that will never change,” Leitch says, “where the team is evolving is in the younger players coming through.” The squad’s average age is actually a little older than England’s, but their average number of caps is much lower. Leitch is the only player in the 23 with more than 50, and 14 of them have 10 or fewer. Partly that is because of the pandemic, which wiped out an entire year of international (and domestic) rugby in Japan. The upshot is that Japan have played only 11 Tests since the last World Cup, whereas England have played 28.

Of the 11, Japan won only three, against Portugal and Uruguay, who they beat twice. Still, the defeats have mostly been close. There was one blowout, when they were beaten 60-5 by Ireland in Dublin last autumn, otherwise they lost by nine to Scotland, by nine to Australia, eight to Ireland, seven to New Zealand, and five to France. They were right in all five games at half-time, and lost to France only after conceding in the 71st minute. “That’s our biggest review point over the last 18 months,” Leitch says. “We’re pushing teams right to the limit, but haven’t closed those matches out. This is another chance for us to fix that.”

They are verging on another significant victory. “They got some incredible experience playing against France and New Zealand, who we almost beat,” Leitch says. “They’re young guys who have come in and are really showing their skill and determination. This is going to be another fantastic opportunity for us to showcase it.”

England’s fixtures against Japan are so few and far between that English fans might be surprised by how much the game there has moved in the meantime. On the field the pack has grown so much that they outweighed France in one Test in the summer. The head coach, Jamie Joseph, who turned down an invitation to apply to be head coach of the All Blacks after Steve Hansen retired, has said he is trying to develop a harder, more defensive style ready for the World Cup next year. Which is one reason why he has brought in Jones’s former assistant John Mitchell. Which will give Japan an extra edge this Saturday. Mitchell’s insights into England’s way of playing are a lot more recent than Jones’s into Japan.

The Japanese game is developing off the field too. It has been only three years since it hosted the Rugby World Cup, but it is already in talks with World Rugby about when it might bid to stage it again. The CEO and chair of the Japanese RFU, Kensuke Iwabuchi, who used to play for Saracens, says 2035 or 2039 are the two likeliest dates. The details were laid out in a strategic review published by the national federation at the end of 2021, which detailed how it plans to go about turning itself into “the world’s best union”. This year it launched a fully professional 25-team league.

Participation is up, especially in junior schools, and the crowds are big; the game against New Zealand drew 60,000 to the National Stadium. They have brought so many journalists with them on this short tour that the media turnout for their training session on Friday was bigger than England’s. Like Leitch, the Japanese team is running up that hill. Sooner or later, they are going to start overtaking some of the sides ahead of them.

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