For the first of a series of features with IRB Junior World Championship graduates in the countdown to the 2012 tournament in South Africa, we recently caught up with Michael Leitch in Japan.
His name may not scream Japanese international, but Michael Leitch is Japanese at heart, fluent in the language he says is now better than his English, perhaps a little surprising given he spent the first 15 years of his life growing up in New Zealand.
Leitch moved to Japan at the age of 15 following an offer to study and has not looked back since, captaining Japan’s Under 20s at the inaugural IRB Junior World Championship in 2008, making his Brave Blossoms debut that same year and returning to New Zealand for Rugby World Cup 2011.
This weekend Leitch is the only non-Japanese born player in coach Eddie Jones’ first squad, for the HSBC Asian 5 Nations encounter with Kazakhstan in Almaty on Saturday, when he will be one of only five players into double figures for caps in a new-look side.
“When I came to Japan I was aiming at the Japanese national team, but at the same time as a New Zealander I also dreamt of being an All Black,” explained the 23-year-old. “But Japan is so good to be me that I have been working hard to wear a Cherry Blossoms jersey.
“When I was 15, the Sapporo Yamanote High School came on tour to New Zealand and some of their players stayed in my home. I got know them and know the culture a bit. That experience made me interested in Japan and when an offer to go over there to study came, I took it without hesitation.
Accepted as Japanese
“It was a big move at that age, but there was nothing much happening in New Zealand ... it was an opportunity of a lifetime so I took it up. I learnt the language and it is better than my English at the moment, learnt to write it first and how to speak it.”
Learning the language has been pivotal in making Leitch feel at home in the national squad and, more importantly, accepted by the home grown players. Although he admits captaining Japan’s Under 20s was a little weird for him.
“Compared to other foreign-born players I am sure I can adjust myself to the team because I know Japanese culture and language better than others. I feel more accepted, I think my teammates regard me as a Japanese player,” explained the TOSHIBA Brave Lupus flanker.
“I was captain of Japan’s Under 20s at the Junior World Championship. It was a big honour, but being a foreigner and captain was also a weird feeling. I was really proud to be captain of the Japanese team.”
Leitch will win his 23rd cap in Kazakhstan with Japan looking to preserve their 16-match unbeaten run in Asia’s premier competition, the Brave Blossoms hoping to claim another title before defending the IRB Pacific Nations Cup crown on home soil in June.
He will be joined in the starting line-up by Ryuhei Arita, his former Under 20 teammate who will become the latest player to graduate from the IRB Junior World Championship to the Test arena.
A great experience
Leitch has nothing but fond memories of his time on the Junior World Championship stage, playing against the likes of fellow Test stars Sam Warburton and Morgan Parra in Wales.
“That Under 20 tournament meant a lot to me, I experienced the atmosphere and the intensity of international level rugby. When I got selected for the national team after that I could use that experience,” recalled Leitch, who has six Test tries to his name.
“We played five matches there. We played our first match against France and their captain was Morgan Parra. It was disappointing that we lost that match. Next matches was Wales and their captain was Sam Warburton.
“We then played Italy, Tonga and lastly the United States. In the last match we finally recorded our first win (to avoid relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy), and all my teammates were so pleased.
“At that time Japan’s Under 20 team didn’t have many opportunities to play against overseas teams, so everyone had been very nervous, but once we played matches we could express Japan’s strong points.
“I think the Under 20 tournament is a really great tournament to get a taste of international rugby, it sets like the base of international rugby and the World Cup, but personally it was just about getting a taste of rugby.”