Japan rugby captain Michael Leitch has discovered a frustrating drawback to the side’s storming Rugby World Cup run — he can’t pop out for a quiet coffee anymore.
Coffee lover Leitch, who has led the Brave Blossoms to three wins out of three so far, can’t leave Japan’s team hotel without being mobbed by autograph-hunting fans.
The marauding flanker, whose face adorns billboards all over Tokyo, recently finished second to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a poll of Japan’s most recognized public figures.
Leitch, who owns a coffee shop in Tokyo, has bought a coffee machine for his room, but admits it’s not the perfect solution.
“I’ve got a coffee machine in the room, but I’ve got to get out of the hotel,” Leitch told AFP after sneaking out for a coffee in the run-up to this weekend’s crunch Pool A game with Scotland.
“When I want to go out, I want to have a coffee but it’s impossible.”
Japan coach Jamie Joseph even handed the game captaincy to Pieter Labuschagne for Japan’s victories over Ireland and Samoa to give Leitch more breathing space.
“The change of captaincy allowed Michael to get his form back,” said Joseph, who reverted to Leitch as skipper for Sunday’s typhoon-threatened game in Yokohama.
“We can all feel how much extra he has to do, particularly in Japan — he can’t go outside the hotel without having to sign autographs,” added the former All Black.
“But he’s the right leader for Japan and I think this is the right game for him to lead the team.”
Leitch, who along with tennis player Naomi Osaka, carries the flag for mixed-race or foreign-born Japan athletes, leads out a multi-cultural World Cup team with roots in New Zealand, South Africa and the Pacific islands.
He also has plans to bring Mongolian teenagers to Japan to play rugby on an exchange programme that mirrors his own development.
But his importance to Japan’s hopes as it chase a first-ever spot in the World Cup quarterfinals cannot be underestimated.
Asked about facing Scotland this weekend in the biggest game in Japanese rugby history, Leitch was in typically belligerent mood.
“We don’t need to fear Tier 1 sides,” he insisted. “We need to be brave, we need to be iron-hearted.”
A calming influence for Japan during the heat of battle, he shuns the limelight.
“I don’t want to be the hero,” Leitch told AFP in an interview before the World Cup.
“I just try to lead by example. When things are going good I’m in the background, but when the (expletive) hits the fan then I’m the one who will show face and give direction.”