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Japan rugby team captain Leitch hails squad's strength under pressure in Ireland win

Michael Leitch, captain of the Japan national rugby team, is seen speaking at a press conference the day after his team's win against Ireland, in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sept, 29, 2019. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka -- Japan national rugby team captain Michael Leitch spoke about the country's historic 19-12 victory over Ireland, one of the favorites to win this year's tournament, at a press conference on Sept. 29, a day after the game was played.

    "We were able to leave a big impact on many people by winning while under the pressure of being the host team," Leitch said, reflecting on Japan's dramatic win. The Sept. 28 result marks the second time Japan has caused a stunning upset in two consecutive tournaments, after unexpectedly beating South Africa in the 2015 World Cup.

    The Ireland game was the first time in 10 World Cup appearances that Leitch wasn't part of the starting lineup, after his play was criticized in the team's first game against Russia. "I was disappointed, but I came on quickly," he said, remarking on his substitution into the game at around the 30-minute mark of the first half.

    Once on the field, Leitch threw himself into tackles and gave Japan some extra momentum. "I thought I would try and create some impact," he said. Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, in Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan, was packed out with some 47,000 spectators who got to see just how far Japan has come in four years. "It was the greatest crowd of my life," Leitch said.

    But the captain is already thinking about Japan's next game. Collecting himself for the challenge ahead, Leitch said, "I had around 200 (congratulatory) messages from friends and fans. When the tournament is over I want to reply to them. But if we lose the next two games, all our efforts will be meaningless."

    The top two teams in each of the four pools dividing the 20 competing squads will qualify for the knockout stage quarterfinal games. Japan is aiming to finish top of their group, Pool A. The team's next fixtures are against Samoa on Oct. 5 at Toyota Stadium in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, and against Scotland for their last pool game on Oct. 13 in International Stadium Yokohama (Nissan Stadium) in Yokohama, south of Tokyo.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Asatsuma, Sports News Department)

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