By Aaron Morton
USA held off a desperate Japanese attack in the closing minutes to win a thrilling IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012 final 37-33 at Murray Park Rugby Stadium in Salt Lake City and secure promotion to the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 in France.
The first host nation to win the Trophy, the Junior All-Americans – as the USA Under 20s are now known – will take their place alongside the likes of champions South Africa, runners-up New Zealand for the first time since 2008, when they were relegated after losing to Japan on the final day.
Japan mounted wave after wave of attacking runs at the Americans, hoping to find a break and avoid a third successive JWRT final defeat, but after about five minutes and a couple of dozen phases, they knocked on and the final whistle soon followed.
“That last minute, I've never felt so much pressure,” admitted wing Kingsley McGowan. “You just had to want it, you just had to want it.”
It was clear that both teams wanted that return to the Junior World Championship and Japan, who were playing in their fourth straight close match, came up just short against their hosts.
“I believed until the finish that we would win,” said Japan head coach Ryuji Nakatake. “They were so tough, mentally and physically, in the second half in the last 20 minutes. The players were great. It was a good challenge.”
Japan held leads in the 44th, 55th and 61st minutes – the lead changed hands seven times in all – but just couldn’t hold on. The Americans’ other wing Noah Tarrant scored a hat-trick, including what proved to be the winning try in the 76th minute.
“Their team was blitzing up a lot, so we just decided to swing it out,” Tarrant explained. “We knew we had daylight. It was a blessing to have daylight and just run for it.”
The Junior All-Americans trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, but battled back to take the lead just before half-time. Perhaps the most critical play came in the 36th minute when Tua Laei picked up a loose ball deep in his own half in full flight to run in for the breakaway try. It changed the dynamic of the match and seemed to give the Americans belief.
“I feel like that was a game-changer for me and for the whole team,” said Laei, whose hometown is just a few miles away. “We felt that if we put good pressure on them off of our kick, something good would happen, and they missed the catch. Luckily I was there to pick up the ball and run my butt off.”
The hosts used the momentum to press the attack. After a Madison Hughes penalty kick in the 39th minute, Tarrant gave the hosts a 15-14 lead at half-time. After the break, it was a wild, fast-paced affair with Japan and Americans trading tries.
Shunsuke Nunomaki, Seiyu Kohara – who led Japan with two tries – and Yoshitaka Tokunaga all scored in the second half with each try coming off a period of sustained attack.
More agony for Japan
In contrast, the Americans used lightning-fast counterattacks to stay in step with the Japanese. Tarrant finished off an attack that spanned nearly the entire field, after taking a pass from Hughes, who in turn was fed by captain Will Magie. McGowan also scored with a blazing run down the right touchline.
By taking an early lead it seemed like the Japanese would finally win the Junior World Rugby Trophy after losing in the title decider in the two previous editions, against Italy in 2010 and Samoa last year.
They opened the scoring in the ninth minute when, after a long ruck in the middle, they quickly worked the ball out to the right wing where a wide open Kohara scooted in for the try. Rikiya Matsuda converted for the seven-point advantage.
Japan kept the pressure on their hosts and 11 minutes later they doubled their lead. Sustained pressure and quick recycling was finished off by Japan's talented fly half and captain Jumpei Ogura.
They haven’t been at the top level since 2009 but they are certainly producing competitive teams at Under 20 level, a development success that bodes well as they prepare to host Rugby World Cup 2019. Both Japan and USA also have an eye on 2016 where Rugby Sevens will be on the Olympic Games programme in Rio de Janeiro.
“The players can be proud of a silver medal, but I think the coaches have a responsibility to go above silver,” Nakatake said.