Raglan Rugby Club’s senior players got a big surprise when the new season’s training kicked off last week – the captain of Japan’s national side, Michael Leitch, turned up for a practice run with the local lads.
But it was sayonara all too quickly as the Brave Blossoms skipper flew out of New Zealand the following day, though with a hint of a return now his professional career is nearing an end.
“It sounds like he might be back here playing club rugby for Raglan,” local coach Noel Barber told the Chronicle, thinking a few years ahead. “He wants to come home to New Zealand to relax.”
The 30-year-old forward who was born in Burwood, Christchurch – his father a Kiwi, his mother Fijian – had actually spent the past 10 to 12 weeks of his off-season in town before joining in at the training session at the rugby grounds in Cross St.
He was definitely not looking forward to going back to the cold, Noel added.
Michael’s done most of his pro career in Japan, having moved there at the age of 15 to study. He learnt the Japanese culture and language – which he says he now speaks better than his native English – and is considered well integrated to Japan, gaining citizenship in 2013.
He captained Japan at the Junior World Championship in 2008 and played in the 2011 Rugby World Cup where he impressed as one of Japan’s best forwards.
He also led Japan to what’s been described as “the biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history” when they defeated two-time champions South Africa in 2015.
Michael has also played for the Chiefs, signing a contract with the Hamilton-based side for the 2015 Super Rugby season after earlier being denied a chance through injury.
He turned out last season for Japan’s super rugby team, the Sunwolves.
Michael’s only the second New Zealand-born player to lead the Brave Blossoms – traditionally the strongest rugby union power in Asia – after Andrew McCormick in the 1990s.
Noel says it was quite exciting for “li’l ol’ Raglan” to have someone of Michael’s calibre training with the local second division side.
And yes he was “running under the radar a little bit”, Noel concedes, which is probably just the way he wanted it.