Japan have two captains at the Rugby World Cup. Often they play together.
Nobody is confused, says Japan coach Jamie Joseph. Michael Leitch is the team captain, and Pieter Labuschagne is the match captain. Got that?
Labuschagne, who made his debut for Japan only in July, led the host team out in their last two pool wins against Ireland and Samoa because Leitch – the immensely popular face of Japanese rugby and the undisputed captain for five years – is managing a sprained groin that prevented him from playing this year until July.
Leitch was captain on his own in the opening night win over Russia, doing much to calm a nervous team. But for the next match against No 2-ranked Ireland, Leitch was among the reserves, and the armband went back to fellow flanker Labuschagne, causing a little angst.
As it happened, Leitch went on earlier than expected when No 8 Amanaki Mafi was injured in the 31st minute.
Leitch running into Shizuoka Stadium drew a huge cheer, and he gave Japan an immediate lift as they overturned a 12-3 deficit to beat Ireland for the first time in the biggest upset of this tournament so far.
Leitch started beside Labuschagne in the 38-19 win over Samoa last Saturday, and Leitch is the one who leads the team off the field in tight, arrow formation after the pre-match warm-up and back into the dressing room.
“ ‘Lappies’ has done a very good job preparing and leading the team on the field,” Joseph said. “Michael is still our team captain, there’s no doubt about that, but this arrangement is to get his rugby right, which is crucial if we’re going to go on in the tournament.”
How long this two-captain arrangement lasts will be revealed on Friday, when Japan announce their team for the long-awaited pool showdown with Scotland on Sunday in Yokohama.
Japan have won their three Pool A matches so far, and Scotland still have to negotiate winless Russia today, but their match to close the pool stage shapes to be a quarter-final decider that will set live TV audience records in Japan.
Japan are trying to make the quarter-finals for the first time, and Leitch and Labuschagne will expect to be on the field together again. And retain their roles.
“ ‘Lappies’ and Leitch are both outstanding leaders,” assistant coach Tony Brown said. “ ‘Lappies’ has been fully fit and playing fine in every game so far. Michael has been in and out of the team this year, so ‘Lappies’ is a natural guy to take over. With the two captains running the team it will help the performance of the team and keep us sharp under pressure.”
Prop Keita Inagaki, playing his second Rugby World Cup with Leitch, agrees. “There’s no issue,” he said. “Pieter offers a fantastic captaincy and everyone listens to what he says. Michael can come in at tough periods to add more to the captaincy and it’s really ideal.”
Both captains support each other’s status. “Leitchy has still got a big role to play,” Labuschagne said. “It’s just for the part on the field that I’m taking over.”
Leitch appreciates the respect Labuschagne has paid him, and has returned it. “He really cared (about me) after becoming the game captain but for us he is the best pick,” Leitch said. “Jamie and all of us trust him and have confidence in him.”