TOKYO, 16 Sep – Michael Leitch hopes that Japan's rising reputation in rugby will be given a further boost at the 2019 World Cup.
The Brave Blossoms captain believes the sight of Japan's players succeeding at the highest level can inspire a new generation to take up the sport, just as it did at RWC 2015.
"When we left for England there were roughly 25 people waving us off at the airport," said the 30-year-old. "When we came back there were 6,000."
That was after Japan became the first team to exit the World Cup at the pool stage despite winning three games, most famously against South Africa.
With the World Cup staged for the first time in a country outside of the traditional rugby stronghold, Leitch is eager to make sure he and his team focus on the job in hand. Reaching the quarter-finals has been the common theme.
"It's important people have that image of Japan being always strong in rugby," Leitch said. "We'll naturally get stronger if we can have more players from the Top League, university or even high school dreaming of representing Japan. So we'll have to do our job."
With one week to go, the home team #braveblossoms were officially ‘welcomed’ to #RWC2019 in Tokyo. Capt. Michael Leitch coloured one eye of a Daruma doll - the other is coloured upon completion of their task.— Mikagehage (@mikagehage) September 14, 2019
(📷 @JRFUMedia) pic.twitter.com/IKU6waUxhE
Arriving in Sapporo from New Zealand at the age of 15, Leitch made his World Cup debut for Japan in the country of his birth in 2011 before captaining the Brave Blossoms at RWC 2015.
The Springboks gained revenge a fortnight ago with a 41-7 win in Kumagaya on 6 September. But just as the 'Brighton miracle' helped push Japan in to new territory, the latest defeat could prove to be another turning point.
"The biggest plus from the (Kumagaya) game was being made to think how we deal with the pressure after kicking the ball," said Leitch. "I noticed everyone was working hard but only concentrated on things happening right in front of them, with visions so narrowed.
"I'm telling my team it's important to keep yourselves calm and look around."
Japan's biggest tests will probably come in their second and fourth games, against Ireland and Scotland respectively. Leitch, though, is eager to see improvement at the earliest opportunity, on Friday in the tournament's opening game against Russia, who the Brave Blossoms edged past 32-27 in November.
"I've been saying all the way along. this will be the toughest of the four games," he said. "I'd take a win by a point as long as we win."