A teenage Mongolian boy has been offered the chance to follow in the footsteps of Michael Leitch, thanks to an act of kindness from the Brave Blossoms captain.
Leitch is known as much for his generosity of spirit off the pitch as he is for his hard running and tackling on it, and the flanker has arranged for Norovsambuu Davaajav, known as Norvoo, to attend Sapporo Yamanote Senior High School.
Sapporo Yamanote Senior High School has a reputation as the best rugby-playing school in Japan and is the alma mater of Leitch, who moved to Japan from New Zealand in his high school years.
A keen sumo wrestling fan, Leitch has seen how Mongolians have made a huge impact in that sport as a result of an initiative that began in the late 1990s to bring youngsters over to be trained in the discipline.
Four of the last Yokozuna (Grand champions) are Mongolians, and Leitch wondered if rugby could benefit from a similar project.
“I was on a plane one day, and there was a little piece on Mongolia, and I watched it and saw how they lived. It is a very nomadic lifestyle; they live in these yurts and travel around the country,” he explained.
“I thought it might be quite nice if we could invite a young Mongolian kid over, who likes sport and maybe wants to make a name for himself in Japan and be like (Mongolian sumo wrestling legends) Asashoryu and Hakuho, train him up, and then maybe see if he can play in the front row in rugby.
“So I reached out to the Mongolian Rugby Union and gave them an outline of what I was trying to achieve and the opportunity I wanted to provide, and they found the right guy for me. He is here in Japan now, at my old school.
“The sort of kid I was after was someone who is hungry and tough and who wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
“We had a look at 12 guys and Norvoo stood out, I first noticed he had big hands and was quite tall and was very humble. I looked at him and thought straight away, ‘he’s got it’.”
Leitch invited Norvoo over to Japan to watch his first-ever game of rugby at the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2019, a 30-10 victory over Russia.
Norvoo returned home to Mongolian enthused by what he had seen but has only just been able to take up his place at Leitch’s old school because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The school is very supportive and there are a lot of people there backing this project. I am looking forward to seeing how this pans out,” said Leitch, a 68-cap veteran of the Brave Blossoms.
“But, at the same time, if he doesn’t like rugby and he wants to go home, that’s his decision. I don’t want to put pressure on Norvoo to do what I have done; I just want him to do his best and see what he can make of it on his own.
“But, hopefully, he will go well and enjoy himself. If he does, we’ll give another kid from Mongolia or maybe from India, Korea or Sri Lanka an opportunity to come here.
“If Norvoo does want to play for Japan, that would be great, but eventually I’d like him to go back to Mongolia and help rugby at the grassroots level there because it will help to make the game in Asia bigger. Asia deserves it because we have got so many good players here.”
Growing the game
Once 32-year-old Leitch retires, he wants to give something back to the game and help other countries in Asia to become as powerful in the sport as Japan.
“Japan are the best in Asia, but we have a responsibility to do a better job of helping to grow our brothers and sisters across the ocean,” he said.
“In my first couple of years of playing here, we’d go to Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines… we went everywhere around Asia, and we don’t do that now.
“They play the same game as us and they play with the same passion and intensity and they deserve better.
“When I retire, I want to get a little team together to try and travel around Asia and stop here and there to try and grow the game.
“If you look at Japanese rugby, it has grown from a team that hasn’t won a game at the World Cup to a team that has beaten the best team in the world, the second-best team in the world and has become top eight in the world. We know how to do it and I feel it is our job to share the knowledge and help other unions grow.”