Calm in the storm: Leitch leads Japan to historic win in Rugby World Cup opener
TOKYO: Japan captain Michael Leitch ensured enduring popularity in his adopted homeland after playing a key role in calming his team's nerves as they laboured to a 30-10 victory over Russia in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup.
The New Zealand-born flanker, who moved to Sapporo in northern Japan as a 15-year-old and now owns a coffee shop in Tokyo, said he had been "all over the place" in practice in the run-up to the historic opener to the first World Cup in Asia, taken aback by the scale of the media attention on the hosts.
By the looks of his teammates, Leitch was not alone in suffering from some nerves about performing to the high expectations of a demanding Japanese public and admitted afterwards that his team was "100%" nervous.
There were errors aplenty in a ragged first-half Japan eventually closed out 12-7 thanks to a Kotaro Matsushima double after Kirill Golosnitskiy had opened the scoring for a limited but game Russia side.
The talismanic skipper, who missed a chunk of the year with a groin injury, orchestrated Japan's jaw-dropping 34-32 victory over South Africa in their opening game in the World Cup four years ago, arguably the biggest shock ever in the sport.
Leitch, who told AFP in June that his team's objective was simple – get out of the pool stages – has repeatedly called on Japan to thrive on the pressure of kicking off the tournament, with the pressure building steadily over four years.
"Thrive" is by far too strong a word for events in Tokyo on Friday (Sep 20). But heckled and coerced constantly by Leitch, Japan focused to become more at ease in the second-half after a Yu Tamara penalty and quick try from Pieter Labuschagne settled nerves.
A third for Matsushima, the first time anyone has scored a hat-trick in the opening game, drove the crowd wild.
"I'm happy. We showed great resilience to not go into our shell and keep playing, so we've got our work cut out but I think we're in the right spot to take on Ireland," Leitch said afterwards.
"After the game I knew that we'd been quite nervous and we'd needed to stay in the match and there was massive relief with the win."
'CHEERED ALL THE WAY'
Leitch, born to a New Zealand father and Fijian mother, led by example throughout.
He twice showed nice hands early on, exchanging slick passes from a quick lineout and then skimming one off the top as Japan looked to attack the short side.
More often than not stationed out wide when Japan had possession, Leitch showed a good step in after a break by Lomano Lemeki almost split the Russian defence.
The flanker, also a useful line-out option, was on hand a number of times in a steadying sweeper role, showing all the strength needed to resi