It’s four years since Eddie Jones last coached Japan, but Michael Leitch still hasn’t forgotten the advice the Australian provided to enable the New Zealand-born Japanese skipper to thrive in his adopted Test rugby country.
“Eddie helped me realise that I am not Japanese,” said Leitch, the 30-year-old who has earned 59 caps since a 2008 debut versus the United States at Nagoya.
“I had been in Japan for a very long time and he is the one that reminded me I am from New Zealand and New Zealanders are not nice people… we’re rough. He helped me realise that. That’s probably the biggest piece of advice he has given me to take me from a good player to a better player.
“He has a genuine care for players. He loves his job coaching, he has got a lot of methods on doing that, so sometimes he can be brutally honest. But with being brutally honest he will always put his arm around you and take you out for a beer or a coffee afterwards. Eddie is a fantastic coach, and I’m very fortunate to have him as my coach at the last World Cup.
“He is very highly regarded in Japan. Even now he’s coaching England, he’s still in the media here in Japan. He’s still highly regarded within the rugby population. He will be regarded as one of the best, well, one of the coaches that really improved Japanese rugby. When he comes over, it will be like coming home for him.”
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Leitch is preparing for the World Cup under a Super Rugby cloud as it was recently announced that the Sunwolves are playing the final season in that tournament before being excluded. “Yeah, there’s that unfortunate timing. Sunwolves are what we need to progress in Japanese rugby because the local Top League is not enough, I don’t think.
“The team itself has been booted out of Super Rugby, but it doesn’t mean Sunwolves closes down. There’s potential that we can play in the Rapid Rugby scene, or move to Europe, I’m not sure. But having the Sunwolves is key to Japanese rugby.”
Leitch had high praise for his former coach in a recent interview.
As host nation, Japan will open the 2019 World Cup with a tie versus Russia before taking on meatier opponents in Ireland, Scotland and Samoa. The Japanese lost to Ireland twice in June 2017 and Leitch recognises the 2018 Grand Slam champions will be difficult to cope with next September.
“Ireland are a huge threat for us. Their set-piece is very dominant. They are a very clinical team. They don’t make mistakes and, for a team like us who want to play off mistakes, it’s very hard. Ireland is going to be the toughest game in our pool.
“(Johnny) Sexton is their key player at the moment. We have got to find a game plan that can control him because if he starts playing well then it’s going to be a hard for us at the office,” said Leitch, the Land Rover ambassador who can’t wait for the finals to start.
“With the results we had in 2015, the home support is going to be massive for us moving forward. 2015, no one knew us here in Japan, so having that home support backing us all the way will at home will be fantastic for us.
“The element of surprise has gone. Beating South Africa convincingly and, just with the preparation we have had so far, teams don’t look at us the same as they do before. I’m certain we can surprise a few teams out there, but I’m sure every team that has played against Japan will take us seriously from now on.
“It’s going to be hot and humid so how our team prepares for that is going to be key to how the team succeeds. You have got to look at what pressure is, I guess. Having a home advantage is good for us. We have got a great opportunity ahead of us to inspire a lot of kids and people in Japan, so I see it as an opportunity. I’m really looking forward to playing in front of the home fans.
“We have got a mixture of players. We have got South Africans, Samoans, Kiwis, Koreans, and the best player we have at the moment in the Japanese team is our No10, Yu Tamura. He’s been a fantastic player over the last four years, very skilful, very highly intelligent,” continued the Japanese skipper, who nominates Fiji to cause upsets in 2019.
“The biggest dark horse for me is Fiji at the moment. They have got a fantastic S&C coach and the way they are playing and the way they are training is very exciting. II would say Fiji are one of the teams that could upset a few big teams.”
With Japan promising a World Cup finals venue with a difference, Leitch’s advice for travelling supporters is to get out and explore. “The World Cup is going to be a fantastic event, but what is going to make this World Cup special is everything outside the World Cup, so getting off the beaten track and exploring Japan. So people coming over here can expected to be entertained for the duration of the World Cup.
“I recommend challenging yourself and going off the beaten track; just go for a walk, stroll into an old Japanese restaurant and have a crack at ordering, that is the best way to experience Japan.
“Sapporo is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, so they will be coming around September, so the climate will be perfect. There are things to do in Sapporo; there are lots of mountains, lots of trips you can do and temples to visit. Being inside the city, just exploring and finding beer gardens and sushi restaurants are things you should be looking to do.”
WATCH: Part one of the RugbyPass look ahead to the 2019 World Cup in Japan
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