Japan‘s fairytale run to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals was a highlight of last year’s tournament but with the afterglow all but gone captain Michael Leitch fears not enough is being done to secure the Brave Blossoms a place at the game’s top table.
Almost six months after Japan’s emotional victory over Scotland in Yokohama secured their spot in the last eight for the first time, rugby, like the rest of world sport, has been brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even before the unprecedented shutdown, however, questions were being raised as to whether Japan was fully capitalising on the success of rugby’s first World Cup in Asia.
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There had been talk of bringing Japan into the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship or even Europe’s Six Nations but Leitch said getting Japanese rugby back to a place where it could compete with the world’s top sides was a big ask.
“To get to that point (at the World Cup) took a lot of hard work, four years of hard work, and we did that for a short period,” Leitch told Reuters last month in the coffee shop he owns on the outskirts of Tokyo.
“To do it back-to-back … would be a very difficult process. If that was going to happen, you would have to change the way the Top League operates and have certain times when the national team can get together and train.
“But at the moment, it is a bit … I wouldn’t say disorganised … but we are not focusing on the Japanese team at the moment.”
In an unprecedented move last year, the corporations that own Japan’s domestic clubs allowed players to train with the national team for nine months ahead of the World Cup.
Since then, however, the Top League had returned to normal, meaning the players would only be available to Japan for short periods before test matches.
If the coronavirus shutdown is lifted and Test matches go ahead this year, Japan will face tier one nations New Zealand, England and Ireland as part of a packed schedule.
Leitch said there was a lot riding on those tests.
“If we start losing those test matches then we could get back to only playing against tier two countries,” he said.
“There is a lot of pressure on us to keep playing well and to be competitive against those top tier one countries.”
Japan has also lost its Super Rugby side, the Sunwolves, who will not be returning to the competition in 2021 after the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) and southern hemisphere governing body Sanzaar were unable to agree terms on a deal.
“It is very disappointing,” Leitch said. “It was such a great tool for us to develop good Japanese players, and for us to not be a part of that next year … I don’t know how else we are going to develop good Japanese players.”
The JRFU hope to fill the void with an improved domestic competition. Some big names, including Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Will Genia, had been playing in Japan before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
The JRFU has also announced there will be a new league format from 2021, though it has been short on details.
For Leitch, who was born in New Zealand and moved to Japan when he was 15-years-old, any new structure must prioritise the development of young Japanese talent.
“It is great that a lot of international players are playing in our Top League but if we look five years ahead we need to start bringing up strong Japanese players,” he said.
“I don’t want to see Japanese rugby turned into a league that has no Japanese players, or the national team with no Japanese players.
“There needs to be a way where we promote Japanese rugby players and I think that is the next step we need to take.”
As he does on the pitch, Leitch is prepared to back up his words with action, and the future of rugby in his adopted nation is at the forefront of his thinking.
“After the World Cup, I had six weeks in New Zealand,” said the 31-year-old loose forward.
“I got thinking, ‘I can’t retire from rugby, come back here, live and do nothing’. I was thinking about getting into some kind of administration job.
“Maybe become the CEO of Japanese rugby one day,” he added with a smile.
The small coffee shop he has run since 2015 is his first venture into the world of business but he says his skill set would be of benefit in an administrative role.
“I have genuine passion for Japanese rugby and I can use my English and my Japanese to communicate with different unions,” he said.
“I need to now get a business background so hopefully this coffee shop starts to make money.
“My heart is genuine when I say I want to make Japanese rugby better, so if that means starting at the top, or a different way of doing it, then I would be happy to do it.”