Japan set the men’s rugby sevens competition at the Rio Olympics alight Tuesday as they opened their Pool C campaign with a 14-12 win over New Zealand.
And while they were unable to repeat the magic in their second game against Britain — losing 21-19 as Katsuyuki Sakai’s conversion of Lomano Lemeki’s last-minute try drifted wide — a quarterfinal spot is still very much on the cards.
“The early England tries were regrettable. But the fact we finished with a try will give us something to build on in the next game,” said Japan coach Tomohiro Segawa. “We have to forget about winning our first game and do our best against Kenya” on Wednesday.
Tries by Teruya Goto and Kameli Soejima and two superb conversions from out wide by Lemeki and Sakai saw Segawa’s team throw the form book out the window as New Zealand ended up on the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets sevens has ever seen.
“We were tenacious in attack and scored tries and our defense held out,” said Japan captain Yusaku Kuwazuru. “We’ve kept telling ourselves to play as we practiced and it’s pleasing that that led to this result.”
New Zealand’s poor start was made worse with Sonny Bill Williams ruled out for up to nine months with an Achilles injury.
But they bounced back to remain in the mix for a place in the last eight with a 28-5 win over Kenya, the second straight defeat for the Africans, who opened with a 31-7 loss to Britain.
Segawa had said the win over New Zealand would give his side confidence ahead of the game with Britain.
But it initially seemed to have added to the pressure on their shoulders as early errors allowed James Rodwell to go over twice in the space of 90 seconds.
Lemeki made it 14-7 at the break and Sakai then sent the crowd wild with a try as Japan pulled level, only for Marcus Watson to weave his way over and seemingly give Britain the win.
But Japan weren’t done and Lemeki’s second five-pointer, two minutes after the hooter, gave Sakai the chance to draw the teams level.
The Toyota Industries Shuttles kicker, however, knew he had shanked it as soon as the ball left his boot, allowing Britain to escape with the win.
“I’m gutted we lost against England,” said Kuwazuru. “We will go at full pelt from the off against Kenya.”
In Pool A, Fiji conceded the first try to Brazil before beating the hosts 40-12. The favorites then edged Argentina 21-14 to give them the lead of the group overnight.
The United States, who opened with a 17-14 loss to Argentina, closed out their day with a 26-0 victory over Brazil to leave the group finely poised.
In Pool B, South Africa top the standings after downing Spain 24-0 and France 26-0.
Australia’s hopes of joining their women’s team as gold medalists took an initial hit as they went down 31-14 to France, but they rebounded to defeat Spain 26-12 to leave the three top-ranked teams in that pool with a chance of a quarterfinal spot.