Japan interim coach Mark Hammett named an extended squad on Tuesday ahead of the June tests against Canada and Scotland.
Despite having hinted he may take the month off, Michael Leitch has been included along with 18 other players who helped the Brave Blossoms win three games at last year’s Rugby World Cup — their only defeat coming against the Scots.
The Brave Blossoms play Canada in Vancouver on June 11 and then take on Scotland in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on June 18 and in Tokyo on June 25.
“Michael Leitch always does what is best for Japanese rugby,” national squad director of rugby Masahiro Kunda said of the captain’s apparent turnaround.
It is understood Kunda spoke several times with Leitch — as did Jamie Joseph, who takes over as national coach in August once his commitments with the Highlanders have been completed — to persuade Japan’s captain at the World Cup to join the squad.
“It’s important to note I speak on behalf of Jamie as well today,” Hammett said at Japan Rugby Football Union headquarters.
“This is a really important time for the Japan national team. This is the start of a new build-up towards Rugby World Cup 2019. All nations go through a rebuilding phase after a World Cup and the achievements of the 2015 side didn’t just happen last year. They happened over a long period of time.”
World Cup stars Shota Horie, Hendrik Tui, Hitoshi Ono, Ryu Koliniasi Holani, Kensuke Hatakeyama and Amanaki Lelei Mafi have all been included among the forwards, while Kosei Ono is joined by the likes of Fumiaki Tanaka, Ayumu Goromaru, Harumichi Tatekawa and Male Sa’u in the backs.
Four students are included in the squad and seven of the 43 are uncapped.
The 43-man squad will be cut to 30 following the weekend of May 28-29 when Japan plays Hong Kong in the Asia Rugby Championship and the Sunwolves take on the Brumbies. The players will also undergo a final medical check.
Forwards: Kensuke Hatakeyama, Masataka Mikami, Takuma Asahara, Shinnosuke Kakinaga, Keita Inagaki, Koo Ji Won, Shota Horie, Takeshi Kizu, Futoshi Mori, Hitoshi Ono, Shoji Ito, Kazuhiko Usami, Naohiro Kotaki, Kotaro Yatabe, Ryu Koliniasi Holani, Hendrik Tui, Michael Leitch, Amanaki Lelei Mafi, Taiyo Ando, Shohei Kin, Yoshiya Hosoda, Kyosuke Horie, Hiroki Yamamoto
Backs: Fumiaki Tanaka, Kaito Shigeno, Keisuke Uchida, Kosei Ono, Ryohei Yamanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Harumichi Tatekawa, Yu Tamura, Mifiposeti Paea, Male Sa’u, Kotaro Matsushima, Ryoto Nakamura, Tim Bennetts, Kentaro Kodama, Karne Hesketh, Hajime Yamashita, Hosea Saumaki, Ayumu Goromaru, Ryuji Noguchi, Yasutaka Sasakura