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Underdogs no more: Japan looks toward 2023 Rugby World Cup

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, on Oct. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

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 favorite team," Leitch told reporters this week, speaking for Tokyo. "We still are regarded as an underdog despite having had two successful World Cup campaigns. It's a hard one to brush off."

    "Subconsciously when you think of Japan your automatic thought process is not a big, physical side that's going to dominate teams," he added.

    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.

    "In 2019, having the home advantage and everyone counting on us to grow Japanese rugby we had a lot of access to resources and time away from clubs," he said. "Clubs weren't reluctant to release anybody."

    "This time around it's a bit different with COVID," he added. "It's really hard to gauge where we are with our preparation but with the time we have been together we've made incredible progress."

    Leitch said Japan can be confident in the players it likely will take to the World Cup. Many already have World Cup experience while younger players have had the opportunity to play beside or against some of the world's top players in Japan's rapidly improving professional league.

    "I'd say we've got quite a good core of players that have been involved in both 2015 and 2019 World Cup, the majority in 2019," Leitch said. "I think that knowledge and experience that we have is going to be crucial in 2023."

    "We've got some great up and coming players who have got real X-factor," he added.

    Japan's image is that it relies on speed rather than physicality, but Leitch said that is changing.

    "Everyone paints a picture of Japan as not having that physical edge, but we've proven in the past that we can box above our weight," he said. "It's not about being faster or more physical than the opposition. For us it's about being smarter, picking our moments and finding the right area."

    "One of our advantages that the Japanese team has is that we're very tactically flexible. Tactics will no doubt change against each opponent. I wouldn't be worried about our fitness or lack of fight in any of those games."

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