TOKYO, Sept 18 ― Japan captain Michael Leitch said today that he has been “all over the place” in practice in the run-up to this week's Rugby World Cup opener against Russia.
The talismanic skipper, who missed a chunk of the year with a groin injury, was named in a strong Brave Blossoms side by Japan coach Jamie Joseph for Friday's Pool A clash in Tokyo.
But Leitch, joined by Japan stalwarts Yu Tamura and Shota Horie in an experienced starting line-up, admitted he has been taken aback by the scale of the media attention on the hosts in the run-up to the game.
“This is no normal turnout,” Leitch told a packed news conference.
“I'm so nervous I've been making all sorts of mistakes in training ― there's so many people and so many cameras. But I'm very proud to be part of the World Cup and to be captain of the Japan rugby team.”
Leitch, who orchestrated Japan's jaw-dropping 34-32 victory over South Africa in their opening game on England's south coast four years ago, predicted that the home side would make history by reaching the knockout stage for the first time.
“In 2015 everyone expected us to lose ― even the Japanese public,” said the Japan flanker.
“But when we beat South Africa, all eyes were on us. The next game against Scotland 30 million people watched on TV and even though we lost, it inspired Japan.
“This time we've got the opportunity to inspire Japan again. We've trained well, prepared well and this will be Japan's best World Cup ever.”
Joseph, who will be without flying winger Kenki Fukuoka (thigh strain), insisted Japan would not go into Friday's game as favourites, despite the weight of evidence.
'Scary' Russians -
“I never read Japanese newspapers but I've never really considered us to be the favourites,” said the former All Black, pointing to a narrow 32-27 win over a hulking Russian side last November.
“We have a lot of respect for Russia,” he added.
“We were very lucky to win last time we played. I wouldn't say we were favourites ― I'd say we were even going into this Test match and if we don't play our best we're going to struggle.”
Despite the absence of Fukuoka, Joseph has enough firepower in the shape of Kotaro Matsushima and Lomano Lemeki to leave Russia chasing shadows in Tokyo.
“We think we have the best guys for the job,” insisted Joseph, who has kept Japan among the world's top 10 rugby nations since taking over from Eddie Jones.
“The team has prepared as well as ever before and we look forward to Friday night.”
Leitch called on Japan to thrive on the pressure of kicking off the tournament.
“There's been pressure for over four years,” he said. “We've talked about it, confronted it. In terms of hyping the boys up, I don't need to do that. We don't need permission to play well ― just go out and enjoy it.”
However, the Japan captain ended on a cautious note, warning of Russia's feisty nature.
“Their mentality is quite scary,” he said. “Their martial arts fighters are so tough ― even their sumo wrestlers. I'm sure they're going to bring it.”
William Tupou; Kotaro Matsushima, Timothy Lafaele, Ryoto Nakamura, Lomano Lava Lemeki; Yu Tamura, Yutaka Nagare; Kazuki Himeno, Pieter Labuschagne, Michael Leitch; James Moore, Wimpie van der Walt; Asaeli Ai Valu, Shota Horie, Keita Inagaki
Replacements: Atsushi Sakate, Isileli Nakajima, Koo Ji-won, Luke Thompson, Hendrik Tui, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rikiya Matsuda, Ryohei Yamanaka ― AFP