The tireless Michael Leitch leads the evolving Japanese team for another race in England | Fall Nations Series

JHere’s a hill in Sapporo called Sankakuyama, or Triangle Mountain, but across the road at Yamanote High School, they call it Michael Leitch’s playground. When Leitch was a student at Yamanote, he used to use it every day after practice. It takes most kids 30 minutes – it’s so steep they cover chunks of it on their hands and feet. By the end of his time there, Leitch had it covered in 15 minutes. Eddie Jones, who first met Leitch when he was coaching him at Tokai University, spoke about it this week. The England head coach is still impressed with Leitch’s work ethic. “He’s a great player,” Jones said, “and a great man.”

The last time Leitch lined up against England, in 2018, the ‘big man’ also made Twickenham a playground. He tore England apart, scored a try beating both Danny Care and Elliot Daly, and nearly got another one. Leitch made as many line breaks on his own as England players managed between themselves. Japan were leading 15-10 at half-time, and although they ended up losing 35-15, England were so badly dominated that the match effectively ended the Test career of a group of Jones players. Four years later, Leitch, 34, is back. You can bet he’ll be pretty much the same tough, hard-hitting player as ever.

The team he plays with, however, is a little different to the one that came in 2018. “Japanese rugby has always been about playing with speed and skill, and that will never change,” says Leitch, “where the team is evolution lies in the young players coming in. The team’s average age is actually a bit older than England’s, but their average number of caps is much lower. Leitch is the only player of the 23 with over 50, and 14 of them have 10 or less. This is partly due to the pandemic, which has wiped out an entire year of international (and domestic) rugby in Japan. The result is that Japan have played just 11 Tests since the last World Cup, while England have played 28.

Of the 11, Japan have only won three, against Portugal and Uruguay, which they have beaten twice. Still, the defeats have mostly been close. There was a blowout, when they were beaten 60-5 by Ireland in Dublin last autumn, otherwise they lost nine to Scotland, nine to Australia, eight to Ireland , seven against New Zealand and five against France. They were right in all five games at half-time and only lost to France after conceding in the 71st minute. “This is our biggest point of review in the last 18 months,” Leitch says. “We push the teams to the limit, but we haven’t closed these matches. This is another chance for us to solve this problem.

They are close to another important victory. “They had an incredible experience playing against France and New Zealand, which we almost beat,” Leitch said. “These are young guys who have arrived and are really showing their talent and their determination. This is going to be another fantastic opportunity for us to showcase it.

Michael Leitch scores a try at Twickenham in 2018. Japan led 15-10 at half-time but lost 35-15. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images

England’s matches against Japan are so rare that England fans might be surprised at how far the game has evolved in the meantime. On the pitch, the peloton has grown so big that it overtook France in a test this summer. Head coach Jamie Joseph, who turned down an invitation to apply to become All Blacks head coach after Steve Hansen retired, says he is trying to develop a tougher, more defensive style ready for the World Cup next year. It’s one of the reasons he brought in former Jones assistant John Mitchell. Which will give Japan an extra advantage on Saturday. Mitchell’s ideas on how to play England are much more recent than Jones’s on Japan.

The Japanese game is also growing off the pitch. It has only been three years since it hosted the Rugby World Cup, but it is already in talks with World Rugby to find out when it could offer to host it again. Japan RFU CEO and chairman Kensuke Iwabuchi, who played for Saracens, said 2035 or 2039 are the two most likely dates. The details were laid out in a strategic review published by the national federation at the end of 2021, which details how it intends to go about becoming “the best union in the world”. This year, it launched an all-professional league of 25 teams.

Turnout is up, especially in primary schools, and crowds are large; the match against New Zealand drew 60,000 spectators to the National Stadium. They brought so many journalists with them on this short tour that media attendance at their training session on Friday was greater than in England. Like Leitch, the Japanese team runs on this hill. Sooner or later they will start to overtake some of the teams in front of them.