Michael Leitch has just been named “rookie of the year” by his team-mates in the high-performing Chiefs rugby side. Normally that award would go to a hotshot youngster, like a Damian McKenzie, who was in contention for this one. But Michael is 26. And, anyway, he has been playing most of his rugby over the last decade in Japan. So how did all this come about?
Michael Leitch could easily have coasted through a rugby career in Japan. At 6ft 2in and over 100kgs, he’s bigger than all but a few of his Japanese opponents or team-mates. He had the great advantage of learning his rugby trade in Canterbury, too, where the apprenticeships in that line of work are especially educational.
So you could have excused him, once he’d settled into the Japanese rugby scene, if he’d taken his foot off the throttle, eased back a bit and concentrated on counting his yen. He had moved there originally on a school exchange as a 15-year-old, but stayed on, nailed the Japanese language and then qualified as a local rather than having to compete for a spot in a club’s quota of overseas players.
But there was no easing back. He kept putting in the effort. And one of the results is that this season, along with two All Blacks (Liam Messam and Sam Cane) he is part of probably the best loose forward trio outside of international rugby. Also, in a couple of months he’ll be captaining Japan in the Rugby World Cup in the UK. And he has already played against the All Blacks and the Maori All Blacks too.
“It sounds simple,” he says, “but I always wanted to be better. So I tended to mark myself against Richie McCaw and what he was doing on the field. I knew I couldn’t get comfortable, just because the Japanese league where I was playing wasn’t as good.”
Michael’s connection with Japan goes back a long way. He grew up in Christchurch and his family would take in Japanese billets for a couple of weeks over the school holidays. Then, when he started at St Bede’s College (a Catholic boys’ secondary school in Papanui), Japanese boys would come out to learn rugby for a few months over the winter. Through both those links, Michael made some good mates.
When St Bede’s decided there was value in one of their students going on an exchange to Japan, Michael put his hand up strongly – even if his mum wasn’t so keen on the idea.
“She wanted me to finish school before going,” he says, “but I told her that the opportunity wouldn’t be around then.” And eventually she relented.
His mum, Eva Natiri (as she was), knew about youngsters taking off on adventures and not coming back. She was born in Vatukoula, near Tavua in Fiji, and grew up on a sugar cane plantation. Not long after she’d finished school, she met Michael’s dad, Colin, who was a young Kiwi engineer working in Fiji. Colin was born in Bluff and raised in Invercargill, where sugar cane farms aren’t plentiful. But despite their differing backgrounds, soon the pair were back in Christchurch and four kids came along. Michael was the third of the gang.
There weren’t many Fijian families around Christchurch at that time, but the Leitch kids got a good dose of both Fijian life and also a more conventional Christchurch upbringing. Michael reckons that gave him a cultural flexibility, which had the advantage of nothing much ever fazing him in Japan.
Punctuality was one big difference though. He says that in Japan not being five minutes early means you’re late. And that didn’t perfectly match with his Kiwi and Fijian experiences.
Then extreme respect for elders was another feature in Japan. Off the field, Michael enjoyed that – and it wasn’t too different from his upbringing. But, within a rugby team, reverential silence from a fair chunk of your players had its downside. So that wasn’t something he was going to buy into.
“In the rugby environment in Japan, when you’re younger you don’t have a voice – and that’s not always ideal. I’ve always been respectful but, when it comes to rugby, if I’ve had something to say, I’ve said it.”
He must have navigated that delicate territory well, with Japan naming him their captain last year, after he made his international debut in 2008.
He admits that initially he took a lot on his plate as captain, probably too much, but now he says he’s learned to control the workload. Being at home with things Japanese has really helped. He speaks, writes and texts comfortably in the language. After all, he’s been in Japan for 11 years now.
But home is really in two places. For a start, there is Tokyo, where he plays for the Toshiba team alongside other Kiwis like Richard Kahui, Tanerau Latimer and Steven Bates. And he’ll go back there shortly to get set for the World Cup with Japan.
Then there’s New Zealand, which for now is the Waikato where he’s playing for the Chiefs – and where his wife is studying English.
It was during the 2011 World Cup that Michael came to many people’s attention in his original homeland. He played well against the All Blacks and also ripped right into the confrontations against an intimidating Tongan side.
Wayne Smith was among those taking notice and, during the tournament, he had a chat with Michael about his rugby ambitions. Wayne thought Michael had the goods to cut it here in New Zealand. Eventually a deal was done for him to join the Chiefs in 2013. But a broken arm and then a broken leg wrecked that season.
When the opportunity came to re-join the Chiefs again this year, Michael was desperate to dive into it. And it’s worked out exceptionally well, this time around, for both parties.
Michael believes his style of play (a special brand of alert physicality) complements the hard running of Liam Messam and the superb tackling of Sam Cane. Having Dave Rennie with his hand on the team’s steering wheel has also been gold. Michael says Dave’s planning is “almost perfect every time”, but that he still allows the players to do what they do best.
It’s been a big journey since setting off from Christchurch as a teenager. There’s a Japanese wife now, in-laws in Tokyo, the captaincy of the national team, a World Cup around the corner, and a Super Rugby title to try and win before then with the Chiefs. So did Canterbury bungle in letting Michael slip through their fingers?
Not really, according to the man himself.
“I wasn’t a star player as a kid. And when I first arrived I wasn’t even the best in my teams in Japan. I made heaps of mistakes. I was penalised heaps too.”
But he had this commitment to getting better as a player. And better and better. So that’s why he wins awards – and leads his adopted country.
Japan and Waikato Chiefs rugby player
Christchurch born – October 7, 1988
Schools: St Bede’s College (Christchurch, NZ), Sapporo Yamanote High School (Sapporo, Japan)
Video: A couple of Michael Leitch highlights from Japan vs Tonga in the 2011 World Cup.
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