Japan shock Kiwis; Sonny Bill forced to return home
Japan stunned New Zealand in their opening match on Tuesday; All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams sustained a tournament-ending Achilles tendon injury.
Japan stunned New Zealand, beating the Kiwis 14-12 in their opening match of the Olympic rugby sevens on Tuesday as All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams sustained a tournament-ending Achilles tendon injury.
The opening pool match upset was an echo of Japan's famous victory over South Africa in the 15-a-side World Cup in Brighton, the biggest shock the sport has ever seen.
“It's unbelievable, you never see a minnow team come here and beat a team supposed to be a gold medal contender. I'm still shocked, to be honest”, said Japan's New Zealand-born playmaker Lomano Lemeki.
There was worse news to come for New Zealand with news that Williams had been ruled out with a partial achilles rupture and replaced in the 12-man squad by Sione Molia. At a sun-kissed Deodoro Stadium, with massive support for the underdogs, Truya Goto squeezed past Rieko Ioane's tackle to dot down in the corner to open Japan's account.
Their lead was short-lived, however, as Gillies Kaka exchanged passes with Akira Ioane before putting in skipper Scott Curry. Akira Ioane crossed for New Zealand's second but Kameli Soejima scrambled over to draw the scores level, Katsuyuki Sakai's conversion pulling the Japanese two points clear for a famous win.
“As we played on, the boys started to get more confident”, said Lemeki. “New Zealand started to struggle a bit there so we thought if we keep moving the ball around the big guys would tire somewhere and they did. We've just shown that any team can win in sevens. We had a gameplan against New Zealand: if we get penalties kick long, slow the ball down and play at our pace”.
Asked if he thought the Kiwis had taken the Japanese too lightly, Lemeki said: “I think they might have, but I don't think they'll be doing that again!”
Soejima, who scored Japan's second try, was left revelling in the fun of sevens. “Our main secret is to come out and enjoy the sevens, it's the Olympics, it's the highest level of any sports, so give it your all,' the Fiji-born flyer said. “Most of all it's our last event of the season after the Sevens Series, and the last chance for everyone to prove to the world that Japan rugby can beat any team. Give it your all, give it your best shot, most of all play our Japan way. It's sevens, it's anyone's games!”
Seeing Williams, a two-time World Cup winner with the All Blacks, being helped off with his injury in the second-half was a “boost” Soejima said. “He's like a main weapon in the New Zealand team so that was our gameplan, just try to stop him, especially in offloading”.
Lemeki added that it was not all about Williams. “Sonny Bill's a good player, no doubt. But we look at every player as a good player on the New Zealand team.I think the Japanese boys started to smile a little bit because they wouldn't have to tackle him!”
New Zealand will later face Kenya, who went down 31-7 to an impressive-looking Britain in the other Pool C match. The partisan crowd thought there might be another upset on the cards when lowly Brazil took the lead against two-time defending World Sevens Series champions Fiji through Felipe Claro.
But there was to be no such drama as the Fijians eventually ran out 40-12 winners in their Pool A match, although the loudest cheer of the day was reserved for local Gustavo Albuquerque as he notched up a consolation try. Argentina edged the United States 17-14 in the other Pool A game.
In Pool B Terry Bouhraoua crossed for a hat-trick to help France to a 31-14 upset over a disjointed Australia, while second seeds South Africa, with Cecil Afrika on fire, opened their account with a 24-0 win over Spain.