Outsiders Japan keen to continue fairytale run in rugby sevens
Japan's exhilarating run to the semi-finals of the inaugural men’s Olympic sevens tournament, where they face heavyweights Fiji on 11 August, has captivated the world, enthralled fans back home and surprised even their own players, says their top try scorer Lomano Lemeki.
Not content with upsetting sevens powerhouse New Zealand 14-12 in the pool stage on 9 August, day the Japanese, ranked 10th of the 12 teams competing in the tournament, subsequently dispatched world sevens series regulars Kenya before snatching victory over France with a last-gasp try in the quarter finals.
Auckland-born Lemeki remains at a loss to fathom their surprise success. “I can't explain it, we just train hard and somehow put it together on the pitch," says the New Zealand-born player. “There's no pressure on us, the pressure's on the big teams, they are the ones supposed to be winning the medals, not us.”
"Honestly? I thought we'd come here, win a few games, give it a good go. I thought we'd be lucky to make the quarters let alone the semis. So I don’t know what's happened here," he added. “Getting to the Olympics in itself is an achievement but to knock out New Zealand along the way is pretty special.
Pressed about what in the approach of the team was making the difference in Rio, the 27-year-old said he thought that the lack of expectation was helping.
"We take it as it comes, and we're feeling really good," he added. “We're sort of playing with the attitude that if we lose, we lose, if we win, we win. A lot of boys are not playing sevens after this tournament, so it’s a bit like just having fun with your mates, I guess.”
Lemecki says there are no nerves at the prospect of taking on the mighty Fijians in the last four. Get past the Pacific islanders and they would then face Great Britain or South Africa for the gold medal, which he thinks is now a perfectly realistic possibility.
"The way it's gone so far, I think we're still in with a big chance. Just need a few calls to come our way, maybe a few yellow cards and we could be in for a medal," he said. “There's no pressure on us, the pressure's on the big teams, they are the ones supposed to be winning the medals, not us.”
Lemeki revealed that he and his team-mates had been instructed to turn off their phones because they were getting so many messages of support from Japan and their success had also raised their profile in the Olympic Village.
It will also raise their profile on the international rugby stage. Japan is set to host the next rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics the following year. As Lemecki’s team-mate Lote Tuquri says: “We're here not just to make up the numbers. We came here to give a good run to all the big boys.”