Rugby

Leitch wants to make sure rugby's current popularity remains high

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Since the staging of a successful Rugby World Cup this year, the popularity of the game has been at an all-time high in Japan. This, however, wasn’t an entirely new experience for star Michael Leitch and some of his Brave Blossoms teammates.

The Japan national team posted three wins, including a stunning upset of South Africa, at the quadrennial event four years ago in England, sparking a rugby boom in the country.

But Leitch says this second wave is much larger and that the sport is being noticed by more people, likely thanks to Japan hosting the World Cup, which gave the public a chance to see the highest-level of the sport up close.

“Just having been informed about the television ratings, I thought that an incredible number of people watched the World Cup this time and those who had a chance to watch it have become (rugby) fans,” 31-year-old Leitch told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday in Fuchu, where his Top League team, Toshiba Brave Lupus team, is based.

Leitch recalled that in 2015 he could still get away with walking around without being noticed after the World Cup. That hasn’t been the case this year, and he’s been noticed in public much more often. The Japan captain said that now “cars stop (to see me) wherever I am.”

The No. 8/flanker also remembers the 2015 rugby boom didn’t last for too long after the World Cup, and feels he bears a responsibility to make it truly sustainable this time. He recalled fans showing up in throngs for Top League games in 2015 and that attendance numbers eventually dropped.

“So we’ve got to play intense games every week so the number of people won’t go down, and that they will get into rugby for a long time,” said Leitch, who came to Japan when he enrolled at Sapporo Yamanote High School and obtained Japanese citizenship in 2013.

Because of the World Cup, this year’s Top League season has been pushed back. Toshiba, which will be led by new head coach Todd Blackadder, will take on Suntory Sungoliath in its season opener at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground on Jan. 12.

When asked what kind of a year 2019 has been, Leitch responded with the word “teppen” meaning it was at the top for him during his storied career.

But Leitch has no intention of resting on his laurels for too long after a successful World Cup, in which Japan reached the quarterfinals for the first time ever. He’s already gotten rid of most of the national team-related gear in his locker, he said, giving things away to teammates and others in a bid to keep his past glories behind him.

“I feel like I want to start all over,” said Leitch. “To be honest, wherever I go, I keep hearing about the World Cup. But I think I need to focus on the Top League, otherwise I can’t move on.”

The Christchurch native, who has served as captain for Japan in the last two World Cups, has his sight set for the 2023 tournament in France. But he think’s he’ll have to battle for a spot on the roster and beat out talented young players. That said, he wants to take “one year at a time.”

“There’s a lot of great back row players (in Japan),” he said. “And I’ll have to beat them out.”