Michael Leitch to play for the Sunwolves in 2019

He might be facing off against them this weekend, but Chiefs loose forward Michael Leitch has revealed he will be playing for the Sunwolves himself, come 2019.

The 28-year-old Japan international had originally turned down the opportunity to lead the new franchise in their debut Super Rugby season last year, instead believing the best way to better his game was to stick with the Chiefs - who he signed for in 2013 but never got to play for because of injury, before linking back up with them two years later.

But now, Leitch - who has earned 29 caps for the Chiefs and who has played 47 tests since 2008 and captained his country 18 times - is eyeing a switch to the struggling Sunwolves in two years' time, in what will be a massive year for rugby in Japan, leading up to their hosting of the World Cup.

Leitch believes having a lot of the players in Super Rugby together will bode well for the global showpiece, where the Brave Blossoms will be looking to build on their stunning upset of South Africa at the 2015 tournament, where he was skipper.

New Zealand Super Rugby sides can only contract two foreign players a season, and only for one year at a time, so Leitch's plan is - assuming new coach Colin Cooper wants him - to go around once more with the Chiefs, then make the move, which would see him stay on in Japan after the local season with his Toshiba club side.

"[In] 2019 [I] definitely will be playing for the Sunwolves," Leitch said.

"If you look at it, it's a great building block using the Super Rugby to build the [national] team."

Leitch said even 2018 was "fully negotiable", but he would wait to see what the revamped competition looks like.

"We don't know what the draw is, when the tournament's going to start, how much travel is involved," he said.

This switch, Leitch said, was of course dependent on him being in the frame for national duties, as currently he is out of the Japan setup, having removed himself from contention last year after feeling the effects of burnout.

"Leading up to the [2015] World Cup there was back to back seasons playing Super Rugby, Japan, Toshiba," he said.

"What goes up must come down. I'd worked myself up to the point where I was peaking at the World Cup. And that 2016 season I was just no good - my head was in the wrong place, body was no good, and I managed to do half a Super season but ended up banging myself up and needed surgery [on his thumb].

"So I made the decision to pull back, focus on two teams. This year I negotiated the Chiefs contract so I get certain rests, and I'm managing my workload a lot better. This year I'm a much better player than I was last year - fitness, freshness, and the will to play, much more energised. I can roll out there and put performances in there, but to get the best out of me, I think you need your mental game right, and last year that just wasn't firing."

Having been on a compulsory stand-down from duty in round one, then missing round three through suspension, Leitch has started for the Chiefs at No 8 in their other six matches, providing a solid, dependable and calm presence, twice going the full 80 and the other times being subbed around the 55-60-minute mark, 

He will find out in around the next fortnight whether he is in Japan coach Jamie Joseph's plans for three home tests in June - one against Romania and two against Ireland.

Leitch noted he can't lose either way, as if he's not considered, he'll get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play against the British and Irish Lions instead. But there's no doubting he's eager to play some international footy again, and is marking himself harshly as he looks to return.

"Last three performances [for the Chiefs] weren't up to standards but I'll use the next couple of weeks to really push my case for that spot," he said.

"I need to work my way back in there. So it's a good challenge, and I'm really looking forward to pulling on the jersey again."

Meanwhile, Leitch will look forward to catching up with plenty of familiar faces when the Sunwolves face the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday night.

The visitors don't arrive in town till Friday, having transferred from Invercargill to Wellington, but he's already been in touch with a squad he knows about 75 per cent of personally.

"I called the guys that played in my club, I talk to them pretty much every week, just see how they're tracking along.

"Hopefully after the game I get to catch up and have a few beers."


Photo By: ANDREW CORNAGA/PHOTOSPORT (Michael Leitch will swap Chiefs colours for those of the Sunwolves in the 2019 Super Rugby season).