Extremes of expectations: Fiji-Japan in Olympic semifinals
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Osea Kolinisau and his world champion Fijians face enormous expectations in the Olympic rugby sevens semifinals.
They will face a Japanese team that itself has already far exceeded expectations by reaching the medal rounds.
Kolinisau scored a crucial try in Fiji's 12-7 win over New Zealand on Wednesday in a quarterfinal match between the two teams widely expected to be playing for gold.
Japan played a remarkable role in the tumultuous pool stage that had New Zealand on the verge of failing even to reach the playoffs in rugby's return to the Olympics after 92 years.
The upheaval started with Japan's stunning 14-12 win over the New Zealanders on Day 1, a result etched in history as the biggest upset in rugby sevens. The Japanese followed that up with a narrow 21-19 loss to Britain and win on Wednesday over Kenya before a 12-7 quarterfinal win over France.
No. 2-ranked South Africa had a more conventional run, and overturning an earlier loss to Australia in a 22-5 quarterfinal win to set up a semifinal match against Britain, which needed a try in golden-point extra time from Dan Bibby to edge Argentina 5-0.
It leaves the Fijians as favorites to win their country's first Olympic medal. Kolinisau knows that only one color will satisfy Fiji, where rugby sevens is the national sport.
"The public back home is a crazy rugby nation," Kolinisau said. "Every time the Fiji team comes out, they always expect a win. We've been under the pump a lot the last few years.
"We need to treat Rio like the (world) series, not let the Olympics get into our heads."
Fiji and Britain are the only unbeaten teams in the tournament. The Fijians had wins over Brazil and Argentina on the opening day and held off the United States 24-19 in the last of the pool-stage games when quarterfinal positions were still at stake.
"We've got one aim and that's to win gold medal, not silver or bronze," Fiji coach Ben Ryan said. "Sometimes it's dangerous to set out outcome goals as a coach.
"But we're No. 1 in the world. We're not trying to be arrogant, we're saying this is what we want. Silver will be a disappointment as bronze and fourth place."
Auckland-born Lomano Lemeki played a pivotal role in Japan's run to the semifinals, and said he'd probably be the most unpopular Kiwi in the world after playing a part in New Zealand's early exit. It doesn't worry him at all, though, given the attention the Japan team is getting for its performance in Rio.
"It's pretty crazy. We've been told we've got to turn our phones off between games," he said. "I think rugby's starting to get bigger than soccer over there."
Japan produced the biggest upset ever at last year's Rugby World Cup with a win over South Africa in the group stage in the marquee tournament for the 15-a-side game. Lemeki said that victory helped inspire the team, but he didn't realize just how much.
"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," he said. "So I don't know what's happened here."
Lemeki said all the pressure was now on Fiji, and the Japanese team would play with freedom because every game after the group stage was a bonus.