Japan’s charismatic third-line Michael Leitch answered RMC Sport’s questions before the summer tour where his country will face Uruguay twice on June 18 and 25 and then France’s XV twice on July 2 and 9. Leitch, 33, is no longer with the Brave Blossoms capitol and remains the central character of the quarter -finalist of the last World Cup. The original Neo-Zealander is enthusiastic when he watches the performances of the Tricolores. Thierry Dusautoir’s fan puts the bar very high for his team at the 2023 World Cup and relies on the original conversion he dreamed of.
Michael Leitch, what memories will keep you from the 23-23 zero match against France during its 2017 automatic tour. It was a shock for the French to make zero against Japan …
Very fond memories of this meeting in the new Racing Stadium, it was full, the atmosphere was great, France was on a long series of defeats (5), they had lost many matches and I remember that the fan huaient l’équipe de France. I remember perfectly well.
Because of Japan, France has completely changed. There was already a new selector Jacques Brunel and then quickly Fabien Galthié. The current good French pass is a bit the fault of Japan …
(laughs). I remember me. There was a great chance to beat France, they were in a difficult period with 2 or 3 years where the VI Nations tournaments were difficult, a lot of defeats, but now if you look at the French team it is the best team in the world, she is very good. It is very exciting to see play in front of the World Cup.
Seriously, if you had to make a team ranking, would you put France at 1?
I will put the French team at number 1. They are very strong. When the World Cup comes, they will have the advantage of being at home. I know what it does. It’s a passionate team and with victories people are passionate about these players, and when the French have this passion they are unstoppable. As seen in the past, in 2011, in chicken they had not very good matches and in the final they had almost failed to beat the All Blacks by one or two points (losing 7-8). That day I saw Thierry Dusautoir do something like 30 placements. It was wonderful, since today he is my biggest player. If you look at the French team you are as super players Makalou, NTamack, Dupont, it is really a great team
Who are the big forces of the French team? You mentioned Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont …
I’m not very sure about the names of the players but when they play you mean this french flair, they are also dominant in front with a good mix, good in touches. This will be a good test for us during these summer tests. I’m not going to lie to you, I haven’t seen many recent matches but, since we have to finish the two matches against Uruguay on June 18 and 25, we will seriously see how France plays, how we can counter their attack.
Are you watching the Top 14?
I know some teams, I talk to Kotaro Matsushima, the back of Clermont. He tells me that it is a very competitive championship, full of good players and where the French team is the priority.
The French team will probably be amputated from its best elements retained by the final of the French championship. What makes this change?
It will probably be even harder because many players will have this chance to play for the blue jersey and this is their opportunity to be part of the team that will be at the World Cup. There will be a lot of players who will be very hungry. Those who come to Japan will not let their chance pass. France remains one of the best teams in the world and will be very competitive, it has a great depth of effect, and we will have this chance to have them in front of us.
You have pronounced the magic word all the time, french flair …
This is what I see in the French game. I return to Dusautoir. Sometimes, the XV of France can be terrible, bad. But other days, it’s fabulous. In my opinion, it is a decision that is made in the head. If they find it, they are unstoppable. It also feels like when you look at them, how every defending player, pushes in a fight or attacks, is great to watch. It’s a passionate team for 80 minutes.
During this tour, Japan will face Uruguay twice and then France twice. What are the goals in terms of game and results?
In a d’abord l’Uruguay puis la France. We haven’t won a test match since November against Portugal (60-5). We have started to integrate new players and there is already experience to be gained against Tier-1 teams (world -class teams, ed.) go to France. As far as I’m concerned, I want victory. It’s been a long time since we’ve beaten a big team. For us to win these two tests would be great for our preparation and our confidence in view of the World Cup.
Would you say that these meetings against France are a test of personality in view of the construction of the Japanese team at the World Cup?
Ibuhos immediately we have no bad injured players. Pour the aller à la Cupe du monde, pour the qualifier in the quart de finale, that is the besoin d’une grande profondeur d’effectif. This tour month will allow us to see this depth and it will give the crowd the opportunity to play against France.
In a recent interview, you said that Japan should have done better in 2023 than at the 2019 World Cup, where you reached the quarter-finals for the first time in the country’s history (losing 26-3 against the ‘South Africa). You have not changed your mind?
That has not changed. We must continue to progress. To get there we have to work on our bank depth. We have excellent coaches in each field, very good players who were already there in 2019, it is important for us to continue to progress.
You have a little over a year to raise your level. In your World Cup chicken, you will be with England and Argentina …
Each hen is very difficult. He will have to take every match very seriously. It is very important to keep the momentum that is being built this summer with Uruguay, France and then automatically with England, New Zealand, Australia and again in France. This is a great opportunity to build on that.
Three years after the successful course on your world tour at home do you think the expectation of the Japanese public is much greater? Is it now waiting for the Brave Blossoms to qualify each time in the quarterfinals?
I am not sure I can answer this question. We are always outsiders when we come to a World Cup. I don’t believe the audience has such a long wait for our performances. Pour eux, c’est davantage la façon dont on joue qui est importante. Internally, a good match is not enough for us, we want victory. We are not going to the World Cup to participate but to win. We want to win and make our fans happy at the same time.
In 2019, you were the captain. There was a lot of pressure on your shoulders. After this episode, has the recession been more severe for you?
It was a great experience. I was very proud of the players and how the team inspired the whole country. Many teams watched Japan. We are no longer a team that suffers in a World Cup. To progress and be favored in matches is a great pride. Having been the captain of this team would probably be the strong moment of my career.
You are no longer the captain of Japan. Why? You might say that a captain must be a leader and be 100% if that is not the case, he cannot be. ”Is that it?
Yes. You know training with the national team is extremely tough. He has to be a leader in training and then in a match. I can’t do it anymore. After the World Cup I had six surgical operations. My body was gone. I could no longer hold the same standards. I had a conversation with Jamie Joseph (the selector, ndrl) which gave me this function.
I think you have the ambition to become some sort of manager of the Mongolian selection. What?
My big goal is to make rugby grow in Asia. Japan has long been the best team but we are no longer involved with the five best Asian nations. My idea is to go to Mongolia, to find good players down there, to make them come to Japan. He already has a player in this case, he is in high school and on his way to represent Japan. One day I would like to go to Mongolia and be the national selector to help them in the Asian qualifying campaign.
Mongolia where there are excellent judokas and the best sumos on the planet, it’s bad …
Yes. That’s what I was thinking. All the best sumos are Mongols. I pour trouver and gamin prometteur et en faire un bon pilier, costaud, at l’envoyer sa France ats la Top 14 (rires).