Japan failed to cap its astonishing run at the Rio Olympic rugby sevens tournament with a medal after losing to Fiji in the semifinals and South Africa in the bronze-medal match on Thursday.

Japan stunned the world with a 14-12 win over New Zealand in its opening game as rugby returned to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years, before knocking out France in the quarterfinals to head into the final day still in the hunt for the gold medal.

But a 20-5 loss to Fiji — which went on to beat Britain 43-7 in the final — sent Japan into the third-place playoff, where a 54-14 defeat to South Africa denied head coach Tomohiro Segawa’s side a medal in front of a lively crowd at Deodoro Stadium.

“I’m very proud of the way the boys played over the past three days,” said Japan forward Lomano Lemeki. “A bit disappointed that we got this close. It was within reach, a medal, but I’m really proud of the boys and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Japan was always going to face an uphill struggle against the top-ranked Fijians, and so it quickly proved when Vatemo Ravouvou opened the scoring in the second minute.

Japan hit back with a try from Teruya Goto two minutes later, but Fiji regained the lead before adding another try early in the second half, and Japan’s task was made all the harder when Lemeki was sent to the sin bin for a rash tackle.

“I wasn’t very happy,” said Lemeki. “I thought it was a good tackle, to be honest. I’ll have to look at the video but it’s done now. It affected the game — they scored another try. But that’s the way it goes, I guess.”

That sent Japan into the bronze-medal match against a South Africa side wounded by a 7-5 defeat to Britain in the semifinals, and the Blitzbokke took it out on Japan with a demolition job that included eight tries.

“We played well in parts but we weren’t able to play the game at our pace and we still have to improve,” Segawa said.

“It’s the first time to play this tournament, so this is a proud moment for us. I hope the players take confidence from this. Usually when we start tournaments, we aren’t able to win on the first day. This time we won right from the start and made the last four, and I think that’s proof that we are getting better.”

Fiji crushed Britain in the final to claim a first-ever Olympic medal for the Pacific island nation, but the Japanese players were proud to take their gold-medal bid into the final day after many of the sport’s big guns had fallen by the wayside.

“We’re not the biggest and not the fastest team, but we just work hard for each other and we managed to get fourth,” said Lemeki. “It’s not often that Japan ranks higher than Australia and New Zealand at rugby, so that’s a big plus.”

Japan now has four years to plan its assault on the next Olympic competition, when Tokyo hosts the games in 2020, and the team has high hopes for the future.

“If we go for it, we can do it,” said Japan’s Katsuyuki Sakai. “We can’t be satisfied with what we’ve achieved — we need to work hard with the goal of a medal always in mind. Sevens is like a family. If we all pull together and work hard, we’ll have a chance.”

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