Michael Leitch, Japan’s talismanic captain who led them to the Rugby World Cup 2019 quarter-finals, believes rugby sevens at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games can give a similar boost to the sport in Japan and Asia.
In reaching the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in their history, beating Ireland and Scotland en route, Leitch’s Japan inspired a nation to fall in love with the sport.
Rugby sevens is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated events of the Tokyo Games, following the Brave Blossoms’ outstanding success at RWC 2019 and also the men’s sevens team, who finished fourth when the sport made its Olympic debut at Rio 2016.
Leitch believes sevens, with its shorter game time, quicker passing moves and easy-to-follow format, can be hugely popular in Japan and Asia.
“I think the Olympics, if they go ahead, would be another good boost for the Japanese rugby public, who will get right behind them,” Leitch told World Rugby.
“I think the Japanese public will get behind the sevens; it is quite easy to follow, it is fast, there are big players, small players, a real mix. Also for Asia, it is a good starting place to get people into rugby.”
Leitch himself was set to be an Olympic torchbearer this July but because of the rearranged international schedule, he may have to pull out to focus on his commitments to a Japan team who will be playing their first test matches since the RWC 2019 quarter-final loss to South Africa.
Following a warm-up match on home soil, Japan will head to Europe to face the British and Irish Lions in Edinburgh and Ireland in Dublin.
Leitch, who hopes to feature prominently after recovering from a period of six surgeries in the last 18 months, is adamant Japan can only improve if they play more tests against the world’s best.
“For the national team we need as many games as possible, to blood the new guys in and give them that experience, so once we get to the World Cup they can deal with top level rugby, deal with the pressure and win the tight games,” said Leitch.
Leitch, with his eyes set on the semi-finals and beyond for Japan at Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, said the Brave Blossoms may have now lost the element of surprise but instead now instil fear in their opponents.
“It is good to be respected on the world stage and we have been fighting for that for a long time,” said the 32-year-old.
“We have been using that surprise element for the last few years – certainly when I started out – but now that teams respect us and take us on as a genuine threat, this just goes to show how much this team has improved.”
Leitch knows how important it is to capitalise on the momentum earned in 2019.
“Beating big teams are not just a one off (now),” he said.
“We are a genuine power in the world now, so it is important for us to keep the momentum going and keep the high standards among ourselves.”
The Olympic men’s sevens competition will take place from 26-28 July, with the women’s tournament following on 29-31 July and the gold medal match happening on ‘Super Saturday’.
All the action will take place at Tokyo Stadium, which was the venue for the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2019.