TOKYO (AP) — Fiji began its Olympic title defense by scoring in the opening 30 seconds of the rugby sevens competition and having to rally with two late tries for a 24-19 win over 2016 semifinalist Japan on Monday.
The highly favored Fijians got the tournament going with Jiuta Wainiqolo posting the first try after Japan failed to control the ball from the kickoff. But the hosts rallied and threatened a major upset by taking a 14-12 halftime lead and having a seven-point margin midway through the second half.
Also, United States captain Madison Hughes finished off a length-of-the-field winning try as the Eagles edged Kenya 19-14 to bring the six-game opening session to a close in overcast, humid conditions at Tokyo Stadium.
In between, silver medalist Britain beat Canada 24-0, bronze medalist South Africa — minus its coach because of a positive COVID-19 test — had a 33-14 win over Ireland, top-ranked New Zealand had a tough start before beating South Korea 50-5, and Argentina raced to a 24-0 lead and then had to withstand a Samu Kerevi-inspired comeback to beat Australia 29-19.
The Japanese produced the upset of the tournament at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut, beating New Zealand in the group stage and reaching the semifinals. Again they put pressure on a top-tier team, with Fiji starting the tournament as a strong contender to win back-to-back golds.
It was Wainiqolo’s knock-on when he attempted a one-handed pickup off the ground as he chased a kick through in the third minute that led directly to Japan captain Chihito Matsui running three-quarters of the field to equalize.
The Fijians soon regained the lead with a second try but, after the halftime siren sounded, Japan’s Fiji-born Lote Tuqiri crossed to give the hosts a surprising two-point margin at the break.
The months that Fijians have spent in camp preparing for the Olympics was evident in the composure at the end, when they scored two tries in the last four minutes and had another one disallowed right at fulltime.
The gold in the men's rugby sevens competition in Rio five years ago gave Fiji its first Olympic medal of any kind and was recognition of its decades-long domination of the condensed rugby format.
The 2016 title was sealed with an emphatic win over Britain in the final, with South Africa beating Japan for the bronze medal.
Three of the four semifinalists from Rio are in the same pool in Tokyo. Britain took the early lead in Pool B on point difference with Dan Norton scoring twice against Canada in the second game.
The Americans have been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world sevens series but, after taking a 12-0 lead, had to struggle when the Kenyans hit back to go ahead 14-12. Kenya had a chance to extend the lead but had a late try disallowed. The U.S. won the resulting five-yard scrum on their own line and Hughes was put into the clear to score the long-range try.
“I caught the ball and it looked a long, long way to the tryline, and I know Kenyans have got some fast guys," Hughes said. “It was amazing to fight through and get the win. That's what counts.
"I was (there) five years ago when Argentina scored with the last play of the game to beat us. To have that potentially happen again was rough, especially knowing what we can bring and what we're capable of.”
The night matches in Pool B featured Britain against Japan and Fiji against Canada. The late match between New Zealand and Argentina could go a long way to determining which team tops Pool A.
The final of the men's tournament is scheduled for Wednesday evening. The three-day women's tournament starts Thursday.
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John Pye, The Associated Press