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Japan looks toward 2023 Rugby World Cup

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) – Michael Leitch led Japan to key victories at the last two rugby World Cups. The next World Cup is in 2023 in France, and Leitch has a message: Don’t overlook Japan.

In 2015, Japan defeated South Africa in the English seaside town of Brighton, which lives on as the “Brighton Miracle”. In 2019, its group-stage wins over Ireland and Scotland carried it to the quarterfinals and brought rugby into the daylight in Japan.

Leitch is no longer the captain but is still a player and a key member of the team. He looks forward to the tournament where Japan is drawn in group D with England, Argentina, Samoa and one other qualifier.

The underdog tag doesn’t rankle Leitch – nor does he see it as appropriate.

“I think Japan is quite unique because I think we’re everyone’s second favourite team,” Leitch told reporters this week, speaking from Tokyo. “We still are regarded as an underdog despite having had two successful World Cup campaigns. It’s a hard one to brush off.”

Leitch said it’s difficult to judge where Japan stands in its World Cup preparation compared to the build-up to the 2019. Then, as Japan prepared to host the world tournament at home for the first time, a sense of urgency and purpose powered the campaign.

The years since haven’t worked to Japan’s advantage in the same way. COVID-19 shut international borders and Japan went 18 months without a test match. Its ability to introduce new players was impaired but Leitch believes things now on course.

Japan’s Michael Leitch is tackled by South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff during the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match at Tokyo Stadium between Japan and South Africa in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: AP