RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Japan's stunning run to the semi-finals of the inaugural Olympic rugby sevens tournament has captivated the host nation of the next Summer Games and surprised even the players, leading try scorer Lomano Lemeki said on Wednesday (Aug 10).
Not content with upsetting sevens powerhouses New Zealand in the pool stage on Tuesday, the 10th-ranked Japanese knocked off world sevens series regulars Kenya in their final pool match and snatched victory over France with a last-gasp try on Wednesday.
Auckland-born Lemeki bounced over to reporters with a huge grin on his face after the 12-7 quarter-final win but was at a loss to explain what was going on.
"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 dunno what's happened here," he said.
Pressed about what in the approach of the team was making the difference in Rio, the 27-year-old said he thought the lack of expectation was helping.
"We take it as it comes, 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 just having fun with your mates, I guess."
Even the prospect of beating the mighty Fijians in the last four on Thursday for the chance to face off against Britain or South Africa for a gold medal was not beyond the Japanese, Lemeki thought.
"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 said the players 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 Athletes Village.
He was not sure he was making many friends back in New Zealand, however, after Japan's role in sending the All Blacks out before the medal rounds.
"Getting to the Olympics in itself is an achievement but to knock out New Zealand along the way is pretty special," he said. "It feels pretty good, being a Kiwi, (but) probably one of the most hated ones at the moment."
In the other last-eight clashes, Fiji sent New Zealand home with a 12-7 win, while Britain edged out Argentina 5-0 amid the high drama of extra time. And South Africa completed the semi-final line-up, after beating Australia 22-5 in the only quarter-final victory that could be described as comfortable.