Samoa had arrived in Georgia as the overwhelming favourites to secure an immediate return to the IRB Junior World Championship for 2012 by winning its sister tournament, the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy. They ultimately realised this goal, but only after Peter Schuster touched down just as extra-time was looming at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi.
The Pacific Islanders, relegated from the Junior World Championship after losing the 11th place play-off to Tonga in 2010, had breezed through the pool stages to set up the title decider with Japan, but needed plenty of spirit, determination and a big slice of luck to recover from a 17-0 deficit and snatch a 31-24 victory.
Japan, bidding to avoid a second successive final defeat after losing 36-7 to Italy the previous year, came flying out of the blocks and were well worth their lead after the first quarter of the match, wing Masakatsu Hikosaka and hooker Yoshikatsu Hikosaka touching down before fly half Ryodo Nakamura slotted a penalty.
It was hard to see how Samoa could stem the Japanese tide, but they did it with their usual style, attacking from broken play and generating holes they were able to exploit. Flanker Jordan Taufua dived over the line in only Samoa’s second foray into Japanese territory and minutes later another extravagant dive saw Robert Lilomaiava dot down his ninth try of the tournament.
A superb chip from captain Patrick Fa’apale then gave centre Faavae Faavae a try in the corner as three scores in seven minutes ensured Samoa went in leading 19-17 at the break. The score remained that way for 20 tense minutes, before wing Viliamu Alauni edged Samoa further ahead with an unconverted try.
However, Japan were not finished and bravely battle back to level the scores at 24-24 when prop Mao Enoki touched down following a rolling maul. But just as the crowd thought – or perhaps hoped – that extra-time was looming, a flat pass from Fa’apale put Schuster over for the winning try, much to the delight of the Samoans and devastation of their opponents.
“We were very lucky to win it,” admitted Samoa coach John Schuster afterwards. “Japan played extremely well today. They had a well-structured game, forcing us into many mistakes. We feel very lucky to have won.”
Denis Simplikevich jumped from Russia's U20s to the Rugby World Cup 2011 stage
Japan were again left contemplating what might have been and hoping it would be a case of third time lucky for them in 2012, although with Tonga relegated from the Junior World Championship this year and the likes of Georgia becoming a more potent force at Age Grade level as rugby continues to thrive in the country.
Hosting their first IRB tournament was a significant step for the Georgian Rugby Union and the legacy left behind by the Trophy will ensure the growth continues, the players’ appetites whetted by the standard of rugby on show from the eight participating teams.
Roared on by their vocal home support, Georgia matched their best ever finish in the Trophy by coming out on top in a hard-fought third place play-off with 2008 champions Uruguay. It was always going to be a physical battle with little separating the two rivals and few opportunities to play open rugby as the boots of Bakhva Kobakhidze and Felipe Berchesi dominated.
Tries from Levan Chilichava and Ucha Mchedlishvili helped Georgia establish a 20-6 advantage and while Uruguay battled bravely to find a way through, they ultimately came up short with the hosts holding on for a 20-15 victory. The other play-offs saw Canada run out 49-24 winners over Russia to finish fifth and USA edge a tight battle with an inspired Zimbabwe 30-29 for seventh.
A number of players from the 2011 edition have already graduated to the Test arena in the six months since, the most high profile being Russia full back Denis Simplikevich, who made his debut on the Rugby World Cup stage and enjoyed a match to remember with a try. Simplikevich, one of many standout players at JWRT 2011, also touched down against Australia and was one of nine Trophy graduates to play in rugby’s showpiece tournament in New Zealand.
IRB JUNIOR WORLD RUGBY TROPHY 2011 RESULTS
Samoa 48-11 USA
Russia 5-33 Uruguay
Samoa 37-6 Uruguay
Russia 42-36 USA
Uruguay 33-5 USA
Samoa 50-14 Russia
Japan 37-24 Zimbabwe
Georgia 38-9 Canada
Japan 30-15 Canada
Georgia 50-19 Zimbabwe
Canada 49-23 Zimbabwe
Georgia 14-29 Japan
Seventh Place Play-off: USA 30-29 Zimbabwe
Fifth Place Play-off: Russia 24-49 Canada
Third Place Play-off: Uruguay 15-20 Georgia
FINAL: Samoa 31-24 Japan