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Japan coach drops talisman Leitch to bench for Ireland match

Japan coach Jamie Joseph sprang a surprise yesterday by naming talismanic captain Michael Leitch on the bench for tomorrow's Rugby World Cup clash with Ireland.

The former All Black made four changes to the starting line-up that beat Russia 30-10 in last Friday's Pool A opener, explaining that Leitch would be needed to provide calmness and experience in the closing stages against Ireland in Shizuoka.

Pretoria-born flanker Pieter Labuschagne skippers Japan for the first time, becoming the third foreign-born player to captain Japan in a World Cup match after Andrew McCormick and Leitch, who hail from New Zealand.

The hosts are given little chance of winning, despite their heroics four years ago, when they stunned South Africa on the way to posting three wins under Eddie Jones.

"Michael has obviously been our captain and if we're going to be successful, we're going to need his impact off the bench," said Joseph.

"All great teams have that. We're playing probably the most experienced back three in the world and the players need to be focused on playing the game of their lives - because that's what we need to do to be successful on Saturday."

Asaeli Ai Valu, Lomano Lemeki and Wimpie van der Walt also dropped to the bench, but Joseph denied that his decision to use Leitch as a replacement was influenced by the groin injury the marauding back-rower had been carrying in the run-up to the World Cup.

"If we're in a position to win the match, it's probably going to come down to the last five or 10 minutes," he said.

"Michael has played only four or fives games this year but he's a key player. As a coach, you need both things - in-form players and experienced players coming off the bench."

Joseph's opposite number Joe Schmidt, whose team smashed Scotland 27-3 in their first game, opted not to risk playmaker Johnny Sexton, who is carrying a knock. - AFP

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