By Aaron Morton
In perhaps the most exciting final in the tournament’s history, the United States won the Junior World Rugby Trophy championship in front of its home crowd on Saturday. Clinging to a four-point lead over Japan, the Americans held up a desperate Japanese attack in the closing seconds to win 37-33 at a sold-out Murray Rugby Park, Utah.
The Brave Blossoms threw wave after wave of attacking runs at the Americans, hoping to find a break, 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," said winger Kingsley McGowan. "You just had to want it. You just had to want it."
It was clear that both teams did and Japan, who were playing in their fourth straight close game, came up just a few metres short.
Japan believed they would win right until the end
"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 (there were a remarkable seven lead-changes in all) but couldn't just hold on. The Young Eagles’ other winger Noah Tarrant, who had a hat-trick, scored 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 said. "We knew we had daylight. It was a blessing to have daylight and just run for it."
By winning the JWRT – and the Americans are the first hosts to do so – they will be promoted to in next year's Junior World Championship in France where they will face the very best Under 20s teams in the world.
USA wins promotion to next year's Junior World Championship
"It shows we're growing and developing as a Rugby country," said McGowan.
The Eagles' trailed by as many as 14 in the first half, but battled back to take the lead just before half-time. Perhaps the most critical play was made in the 36th minute by Tua Laei, who picked up a loose ball deep in the Americans' own territory 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. And luckily I was there to pick up the ball and run my butt off."
The Eagles 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 the Brave Blossoms and Americans trading tries.
Shunsuke Nunomaki, Seiyu Kohara – who led Japan with two tries – and Yoshitaka Tokunaga all scored in the second half. Each one came off sustained attacks.
More agony for talented Japanese
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 touch line.
By taking an early lead it seemed like the Japanese would finally win the JWRT after losing in the title game in both of the previous two editions (against Italy in 2010 and Samoa last year).
They opened the scoring in the ninth minute. After a long ruck in the middle of the field, they quickly worked the ball out to the right wing where a wide open Kohara, who scooted in for the try. Rikiya Matsuda converted for the seven-point advantage.
The Brave Blossoms kept the pressure on and 11 minutes later they doubled their lead. Sustained pressure and quick recycling was finished off by Japan's talented outside 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 the Rugby World Cup 2019. Both Japan and USA also have an eye on 2016 where Rugby Sevens will once again be in the summer programme for the Olympic Games 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.
By Aaron Morton