RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — First it was a World Cup upset for Japan. Now it's the Olympics.
For the second time in less than a year, Japan stunned a traditional rugby power at a global event — and it's destined to keep people interested.
Inspired by the win over South Africa in the 15-a-side game last September, which ranks as the biggest Rugby World Cup upset ever, the sevens team had a 14-12 win over New Zealand on the opening day of the men's competition at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday.
Making it more memorable, it was the first day in 92 years of men's rugby competition at the Summer Games.
"This is our chance to prove to the world that Japan can beat any team," said Lote Tuqiri, a Fiji-born flyer who proudly plays for Japan. "How Japan finished at the World Cup really lifted rugby in Japan. Numbers are coming in. Hopefully our win against New Zealand will boost it another level — in sevens it's anybody's game."
Hours after beating the 12-time world sevens series champion New Zealanders for the first time, the Japan squad showed it was no fluke by pushing Britain all the way before missing a last-minute kick at goal that could have forced a draw.
"They're a good team. They pushed Britain very closely as well — perhaps that says it all," veteran New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said of Japan's performance. "There are no given games these days."
Rugby in Japan has been almost entirely dominated by teams owned by big corporate teams which important talent from abroad.
The win over South Africa at the World Cup last year set TV ratings records, and caused a surge in interest in the game. The Japan-based Sunwolves joined the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby competition this year and, although it didn't have a lot of on-field success, it showed glimpses of promise against well-established teams.
Tuqiri, who shares the same name as a cousin who played a Rugby World Cup final for Australia, is hoping for an influx of talented young Japanese players for the sevens program to improve the country's chances of winning a medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"Sevens isn't a big thing in Japan, its' more 15s, so we want to lay a good platform," Tuqiri said. "Look what the 15s did in the World Cup.
"This Olympics is not only a world series, it is the highest level of any (sevens) competition. We're not coming here just to make up the numbers ... we're here to give a big run to all the big boys."
A win on Wednesday over Kenya, which had a breakthrough title on the world sevens circuit last season, would help Japan qualify for the quarterfinals. The 15s team narrowly missed the knockout stage of the World Cup.
The winners of quarterfinal matches at Rio will be playing for medals.