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Brave Blossoms star calls for Japanese inclusion in major international tournament

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

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Brave Blossoms star Michael Leitch has called for the inclusion of Japan in a regular competition against tier one nations.

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Speaking to worldwide media on a Japan Rugby League One conference call earlier this week, Leitch said regular fixtures against rugby’s elite teams is crucial both for the development of the game in Japan, and for the national team.

“In terms of national side, the more games we play against top tier one sides, the better we are going to get, so if we can get consistent games against the top sides in the world, it’ll be great for Japanese rugby,” he said.

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“If we were to join a league where we get to play teams week-in, week-out that are very competitive, then that’s going to be great for Japanese rugby going forward.”

Arguments have been made that Japan merit inclusion in an annual, top-quality test competition like the Rugby Championship or Six Nations on the basis of their recent performances at the last two World Cups.

In 2015, the Brave Blossoms stunned the world by defeating the Springboks and became the only team in World Cup history to win three of their four pool matches and not qualify for the knockout stages.

Four years later, in a World Cup hosted on home soil, Jamie Joseph’s side beat Ireland and Scotland to top their pool and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time ever.

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Since then, there has been a persistent narrative Japan warrants inclusion in a major international tournament, although Leitch refrained from giving his input about whether the Rugby Championship is the most logical of those tournaments.

However, the 33-year-old loose forward reinforced his view that Japan need to continue to mix and mingle with the world’s best teams in order to continue their rapid development in the test arena.

In saying that, he made note that it is also Japan’s responsibility to help the growth of other emerging nations by playing them in test matches as well.

“If we go back 10 years, we had our Asian Five Nations, which was a great tournament on his own, but in terms of developing our own standards of play, we had to play opposition that were immensely stronger than us,” he said.

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“We had a really long period of playing within tier two, occasionally against tier one, but the key for us going forward is to be able to keep playing those tier one games on a regular basis.

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“At the same time, it’s Japanese responsibility to help other emerging nations grow in their preparations for other World Cups.

“For Japan going forward, the Japanese teams needs to keep playing against strong opposition.”

Leitch’s comments are reflected by Japan’s two-test series against Uruguay, who have qualified for next year’s World Cup in France, next month before staging two tests against Les Bleus in July.

Leitch said the upcoming matches against France, this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam champions who are widely considered as favourites for next year’s World Cup, will provide the Brave Blossoms with a stern test in the midst of Japan’s summer.

“First challenge would be the heat. It’s going to be extremely hot. July in Japan is one of the toughest times to play. It’s going to be wet, it’s going to be humid, so that’s one challenge,” he said.

“The second challenge is to be able to meet that physicality head-on.

“The French are very physical up front, so coming from a League One environment, coming into camp and then tyring to replicate what that physicality is going to look like is going to be a challenge for us going forward.”

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