TOULOUSE, France — Japan’s former captain remains a player the national team can count on no matter what.
Michael Leitch, the captain of the Brave Blossoms for the 2015 and 2019 editions of the Rugby World Cup, scored a try in the team’s opening match against Chile on Sunday in Toulouse, France. The tournament in France is his fourth time playing in the RWC.
Overcoming injury setbacks, the face of rugby in Japan continues to play with the intensity he has been known for.
This year’s Brave Blossoms squad is captained by Kazuki Himeno, who was ruled out of the Chile match. While Yutaka Nagare took on the captain’s duties for the match, Leitch, who turns 35 next month, is a force to be reckoned with.
Thirteen minutes into the second half with Japan leading 21-12, the Brave Blossoms were on the attack in front of the goal line. Leitch received the ball and broke tackles as he ran up the middle for a try.
“It was what I aimed for,” the flanker said. “It was good that it was the right time for me to show up and score a try.”
It was a big play for Japan to shift the momentum after Chile scored the first try of the second half.
Leitch was instrumental on defense, too, as he helped Japan come through in the clutch by stopping a good run by Chile near the goal line in the 42-12 victory.
When Japan hosted the RWC in 2019, Leitch played a huge part in getting the Brave Blossoms to the quarterfinals of the tournament for the first time. After his heroics, he was physically worn out and subsequently found it difficult to walk. He had operations on both hips and both ankles. Still, his form did not improve.
“It was a real hell,” said Leitch, who briefly contemplated retirement.
But his ardent desire to win and his strong belief in the further growth of rugby in Japan never waned.
He stopped getting dragged down by injuries and age. Instead, he focused on relentless training and practice. Soon his innate strength returned.
Leading up to the 2023 RWC, his form had recovered to the point where he could say, “Now I feel my best.”
It’s impossible to think of the Brave Blossoms without their talisman. The match on Sunday was Leitch’s 14th appearance in the RWC, tying him with Luke Thompson for the Japan record.
Leitch is looking forward to Japan’s next match, against England on Sept. 18 at 4 a.m. Japan time.
“It’s going to be a huge match,” Leitch said.