2009: Kenya lights way in Juniors
Romania's Under 20s may have been the ones celebrating in Kenya, but the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2009 was one which all participants will look back on fondly, be it for the ultra competitiveness of the eight-team tournament streamed live and on-demand on the IRB website, the festival atmosphere surrounding it or the hugely successful legacy programme which brought the players and management closer than ever to the local communities.
The raising of the bar in terms of playing standards from the inaugural tournament in Chile was evident with no fewer than five teams - Chile, Kenya, Namibia, Romania and USA - going into the final round of pool matches with a chance of reaching the title decider on 3 May. It was only after a number of twists and turns that USA booked their place as Pool A winners against Romania, the top side in Pool B.
Neither finalist was known until the last five minutes of their respective pool matches, ensuring maximum drama. Filip Lazar capitalised on a Chile mistake to win the race to touch down and seal a 26-20 victory for Romania, and David Tameilau scored the crucial fourth try for the Junior Eagles to secure the bonus point victory they needed to deny the Kenyans what would have been a much celebrated place in the final.
The hosts had only finished fifth in the 2008 CAR Under 19 Championship and the battle for top spot was expected to be between African champions Namibia and USA, the side relegated from last year's IRB Junior World Championship in Wales. Kenya, however, clearly hadn't read that script and were inspired throughout by their vociferous supporters who created a fantastic match day atmosphere.
Twists and turns
Every tackle made by the Kenya Chipu, every ball lost by their opponents and every attack they mounted was greeted with a cacophony of noise and they came within a whisker of the first upset in the all-African affair with Namibia. The hosts' chip and chase philosophy had the crowd on the edge of their seats and produced memorable tries for wing Collins Omae and flanker Joel Omer.
It was not to be their day though, relentless Namibia pressure in the second half finally paid dividends in the dying minutes against a tiring Kenyan side when wing Nathan Ockhuizen chased and gathered his own chip to run under the posts and seal a 22-17 comeback win.
Kenya went away to lick their wounds, returning four days later to face the Junior Eagles with even more determination to give their fans a victory to celebrate. This had seemed unlikely with the Chipu trailing 32-14 after hooker Tim Barford won the race to touch down Zach Test's kick in the 62nd minute.
However, there was to be another twist as things finally clicked for the hosts and they duly whipped the crowd into a frenzy by scoring three tries in eight frenetic minutes, two of them by their flying wing Omae, to edge ahead 33-32.
The Kenya Chipu were unlucky not to reach the final after some impressive displays
The hosts could have been forgiven for experiencing a sense of déjà vu when Tai Enosa, who together with Test was named in the USA senior squad while in Nairobi, attempted a last gasp drop goal, but the impressive fly-half's effort flew wide and a packed RFUEA Grounds heaved a sigh of relief and the celebrations could begin.
Kenya had the easier task as the pool stages drew to a conclusion, facing the Cayman Islands who had conceded 17 tries in a 104-17 defeat by Namibia last time out. They did produce a much-improved performance and took the game to the hosts early on, but ultimately the relentless pressure from Kenya's forward pack proved the difference and they scored seven of their 10 tries in a 67-0 victory.
Chile's extra motivation
The hosts had done all they could, now they and their supporters - including Sevens coach Benjamin Ayimba - had to endure a nervous wait for the USA-Namibia outcome. A win for Namibia and they would finish top; a victory with no bonus point for USA and Kenya would on the head-to-head rule after their 33-32 win.
The crowd started cheering for USA after Namibia went ahead, but they were ultimately silenced when Tameilau scored the Junior Eagles' second try in a nervy final eight minutes to finish top with 12 points, one more than Kenya with Namibia third on 10 and Cayman Islands bottom with none.
The decisive Pool B match was always going to be Chile v Romania, a repeat of their pool decider in Santiago last year when the hosts ran out 14-3 winners, and so it proved after both recorded bonus point victories over tournament debutants Papua New Guinea and Korea.
Not that either side had it all their own way against Papua New Guinea in particular, the Oceania representatives lighting up the Trophy with several contenders for try of the tournament as a result of their 'run everything' game plan, many of them coming from moves that had started deep in their own 22 when seemingly nothing was on.
Both were eager to reach the final, but Chile had an extra motivation as they were desperate to lift the trophy in memory of Santiago Fuenzalida, one of the stars of their 2008 side who had been killed in a car accident soon after the South American Championship later that year. Throughout the tournament the squad wore t-shirts bearing the name and number (15) of the player who would have captained them in Kenya.
The match was full of twists and turns, Cristian Rizea's two tries in as many minutes giving Romania a 21-8 lead only for a quick-fire Mauricio Rey brace to cut the deficit to one point. It was a mistake, though, that ultimately proved costly, a pass going astray and allowing Lazar to race clear. Chile could still have snatched the win, but lost the ball and the match, 26-20.
Graduating to test rugby
Papua New Guinea rounded off the pool stages with a first win, three tries in six first half minutes setting up a 43-19 victory over Korea. They would finish sixth overall, albeit only after losing an enthralling play-off to Namibia 48-43 on the final day, with coach Robin Tarere admitting the tournament "was an eye opener for all of us and every one of the players goes home much more experienced".
Papua New Guinea's attack-minded game plan resulted in some superb tries
A try scorer for Namibia in that victory was Andre de Klerk, who just over a month later became the first schoolboy to play for his country's senior side in Rugby World Cup qualifiers against Ivory Coast. PNG's impressive full-back and captain Christopher Kakah would also make that step up against the might of Samoa in July.
The third place play-off was equally tight with Chile holding off Kenya to win 19-17, while Korea finished on a high with a 62-12 defeat of Cayman Islands, thanks in no small part to number 8 Cha Sung Kun's record haul of five tries.
The final itself lived up to all expectations with end to end play, scything breaks through midfield, near misses and a tense final as Romania scored 19 unanswered points in the second half to triumph 25-13. It was unfortunate, therefore, that an enthralling final that had been all square with 10 minutes remaining swung Romania's way as a result of two USA errors.
A restructuring of the IRB Junior World Championship in 2010 - reducing the participating teams from 16 to 12 - means Romania will not play in the top tier as Trophy champions, but that did not damper their celebrations at the final whistle.
"I am happy and overjoyed," enthused Romania captain Eduard Marinca after receiving the trophy from IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset. "I said our intention was to lift this trophy and true to it God has rewarded our hard work. We knew we had to play and that's what we did, the boys put in a lot of work and gave it all.
"It's an experience like no other."
Cayman Islands 15-64 USA
Kenya 17-22 Namibia
Cayman Islands 7-104 Namibia
Kenya 33-32 USA
Kenya 67-0 Cayman Islands
Namibia 24-29 USA
Papua New Guinea 17-50 Romania
Chile 49-21 Korea
Chile 50-22 Papua New Guinea
Korea 14-65 Romania
Papua New Guinea 43-19 Korea
Chile 20-26 Romania
Seventh Place: Cayman Islands 12-62 Korea
Fifth Place: Namibia 48-43 Papua New Guinea
Third Place: Kenya 17-19 Chile
USA 13-25 Romania