We want to win the Rugby World Cup, says Japan captain Michael Leitch

You may have missed it but Michael Leitch, captain of the Japanese national rugby team (aka the Brave Blossoms), gave an intriguing interview recently in which he declared that his side intended to win the World Cup that they are hosting later this year. Despite the fact that Japan have never progressed beyond the pool stages of any RWC and once conceded a whopping 100 points (including 15 tries) to Scotland in a 2004 international in Perth.
Pieter Labuschagne is expected to join the Blossoms squad.Pic: AFP/Getty ImagesPieter Labuschagne is expected to join the Blossoms squad.Pic: AFP/Getty Images
Pieter Labuschagne is expected to join the Blossoms squad.Pic: AFP/Getty Images

Japan are in the same World Cup pool as Scotland and, in case you suspect Leitch has had one too many sakes, there is some smart psychology behind his bold statement that is aimed squarely at his own team-mates.

“You cannot be accepting of losing and going out there and doing your best and coming out of there without making the quarter-finals,” said Leitch, pictured below, in the interview with Reuters.

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“We want to make the quarter-finals but ideally, we want to win the World Cup. That is an outrageous statement but it changes your whole behaviour. If you want to make the quarter-finals compared to if you want to win the World Cup, it changes your behaviour.”

Japan traditionally cleave to their underdog status in a way that makes Scotland look like giddy optimists. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Gregor Townsend’s key game in the pool will be against the Blossoms, not least from the Scotland coach himself who is just back from a scouting trip to Japan.

“We know how good Japan have become,” said the Scotland boss in an interview with the Japan Times, after taking a coaching clinic for high school students in Yokohama.

“They will be a very strong team. [Playing the host nation] is a challenge for anyone. We will have to play our best rugby to get through.

“The strength of Japanese rugby is very similar to Scottish rugby. We want to play at pace, move teams around through the accuracy of our passing and fitness, and Japan do that very well.”

One of Townsend’s headaches is what tactics to adopt against Japan, the only team in world rugby who want to play faster and looser than Scotland.

European teams would normally revert to a set-piece game against Japan and bully them into submission with driving mauls and one-out runners but that is pretty much uncharted waters for Scotland on Townsend’s watch. At least the national coach has a few months to come up with a plan.

As Japan’s on-field leader, Leitch is a little biased but he is not alone in thinking that the hosts can cause an upset, with Scotland as the fall guys.

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Robbie Deans did great things with Canterbury before coaching the Wallabies, and the former All Black fly-half now coaches the Panasonic Wild Knights, a club that includes the prolific winger Kenki Fukuoka, who has 18 tries for Japan in 29 Tests, on their roster. Having been there since 2014, the Kiwi knows Japanese rugby as well as anyone, is relatively objective on the matter, and is firmly of the belief that Japan can cause another RWC upset.

“They have genuine and, I think, realistic, expectations of getting through to the quarters for the first time,” Deans said in an interview earlier in the year.

“They won’t be happy this time if they don’t reach the quarters. I think they are realistic hopes but it will be a challenge.

“What will change in the next 12 months that possibly the public aren’t aware of, is that there are going to be some players who become eligible because of residency.

“This will add some substance to the existing group, [which] has the capacity to play, be creative, be fast and they have got some skilful players, but they do need some more substance.”

He doesn’t name them but Deans may have been referencing two South Africans who will both become eligible for Japan before the tournament starts. Grant Hattingh is a 6ft 7in lock/flanker for the Sunwolves and Pieter “Lappies” Labuschagne is an out-and-out loose forward. According to one Japanese pundit, Lappies is “indispensable” to Japan, especially if he appears alongside fellow breakaways Leitch and Amanaki Mafi, the latter included in Japan’s wider World Cup squad despite a pending court case for assault in New Zealand hanging over him.

The Blossoms have already fired numerous warning shots. They famously beat the Springboks in RWC ’15, since when they have claimed the scalps of Italy and Tonga, earned a draw with France in Paris in 2017, after missing a simple conversion, and were leading England 15-10 at half-time before running out of steam at Twickenham. This weekend the “Wolf Pack” (Japan’s extended squad) beat the Western Force 51-38.

At least Scotland know what to expect, having toured Japan as recently as 2016 when the visitors won both Tests; comfortably enough in Aichi (26-13), far less so in Tokyo where they squeaked through 21-16 after trailing 16-9 early in the second half. One Scottish player declared it the “toughest” Test he had ever played due to the claustrophobic combination of heat and humidity.

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All of Scotland’s points came from the boot, whereas Japan scored the best international try many of us can remember, a length-of-the-field effort that started with a lineout ten metres from their own try line and included just one breakdown as Japan’s speed and accuracy did the rest.

“I have seen a massive change in the Japanese mentality and the biggest change I noticed was in 2015 where we started to beat quality sides and then beat South Africa at the World Cup,” Leitch continued.

“The Japanese mentality has gone from being scared and not touching great players to seeing a great player but getting really stuck into him, not fearing All Blacks or fearing key players from the England squad.”

There is no question that Japan will get stuck into Scotland when the two meet on 13 October in Yokohama in the final pool match. It will almost certainly be the final World Cup match for one of the two teams.