Tonga will face Japan in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2014 final with a place in next year’s IRB Junior World Championship awaiting the winner after finishing top of their respective pools in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
The tough-tackling Tongans reached their first final after a thrilling 28-22 victory over top seeds USA in the last Pool A match at the Hong Kong Football Club, keeping alive hopes of returning to the Junior World Championship for the first time since 2011.
Japan were more comfortable winners over second seeds Canada, scoring six tries in a 37-12 victory to top Pool B and the Asian champions will now hope it is a case of fourth time lucky having lost three title deciders in a row between 2010 and 2012.
The climax of the pool stages doubled as Keep Rugby Clean Day at the Trophy with all participating teams wearing special t-shirts to show their support for the International Rugby Board's anti-doping campaign.
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Tonga scored two tries in each half to give them an invaluable bonus point which pushed them to 10 points, the same as 2012 champions USA who also picked up a bonus point for losing by less than seven points. However, the Pacific Islanders topped the pool on the head-to-head result.
The match ended in some confusion with the USA players thinking they had done enough to secure a final berth, believing a superior point differential would see them through only to be crestfallen to discover that it was Tonga who would go through to the final.
“Praise to God for giving us this victory,” said a delighted Tongan head coach Feao Vunipola. “Our defence was rock-solid and our fitness was superb and these were the two key ingredients behind the win.”
Scrum half Siaosi Tonga scored the first try for the Tongans before Patelisio Oneone, who began the game at fly half but then switched to scrum half after an early injury to Tonga, maintained the pressure. Full back Jarom Halo and replacement prop Haini Moala also touched down.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Tonga, the fourth seeds, who began the competition with a 34-10 defeat at the hands of Georgia, but then bounced back to beat hosts Hong Kong 39-16 and inflict the first loss on the fancied Americans.
“We started the tournament slowly and our fitness was lacking in that first game, but we have kept on improving and today everything fell into place, especially our defence which was the key,” added Vunipola.
“The US was ranked number one but I felt they played their final last week when they met Georgia, who they thought was the team to beat in our pool. We came in as the underdogs.”
Fly half Ben Cima had kept his side in touch with their first 12 points coming from four penalties, but by then Tonga had stretched the lead to 23-12 with Halo scoring, finding himself unopposed out-wide after a long cut-out pass from Latu had foxed the defence.
Huge disappointment for USA
Moala’s try in the 67th minute ushered in high-fives and celebrations among the Tongan players and bench as they clinched the valuable bonus point. But their opponents did not fold easily with prop Titi Lamositele driving over for a try after a fluffed clearance had kept play inside the Tongan 22.
Cima converted to reduce the deficit and then added a penalty to make it 28-22 and the USA thought they had done enough as they slowed play in the final stages. They booted the ball out as the clock reached full-time, only to find out later that the head-to-head result counted first and not point differential in case of two teams being tied on the same number of points.
“It is very disappointing to go out in this fashion but we couldn’t get any early rhythm into our game and we failed to control and protect that grey area – between the halfway and our 22. That cost us,” said USA team manager Michael Engelbrecht.
Relegated after finishing bottom at the last IRB Junior World Championship, the USA had hoped to secure an immediate return to next year’s event in Italy.
“To be within touching distance and not go through to the final on Saturday is a huge disappointment,” added Millard.
Japan’s route to the final was far more clear-cut – simply defeat second seeds Canada and they would pip 2008 champions Uruguay to top spot in Pool B, despite the South Americans having earlier beaten Namibia 16-13.
The Asian champions did it in some style with four second half tries to run out 37-12 winners.
Wing Shuhei Narita and outside centre Keisuke Moriya dotted down in a first half which ended with Japan leading 13-5, before tries from hooker Shunta Nakamura, full back Seiya Ozaki, number 8 Sota Oketani and prop Kosuke Horikoshi put the match beyond 2013 runners up Canada.
Relief for Uruguay coach
“The players did their job well today, this is the way they are supposed to play,” said pleased Japan coach Keisuke Sawaki. “We outplayed Canada physically and if we continue to play our brand of rugby, Japan rugby, I don’t fear Tonga in the final.”
Japan’s victory put paid to the slim chance Uruguay, the only side not to taste defeat in Pool B, had retained of reaching the final after their narrow win over Namibia in the day’s penultimate match.
Three penalties from the boot of fly half Manuel Blengio kept Uruguay’s noses in front at the break with the only answer from their opponents being two penalties from his opposite number Chris Arries.
Hooker German Kessler touched down early in the second half to stretch Uruguay’s lead to 16-6 before impressive number 8 Wian Conradie touched down 10 minutes from time to give the African champions hope that they could finish on top.
But Uruguay’s defence held firm to deny Namibia. Both teams had entered the match on six points, but the victory pushed Uruguay to 10 points and a temporary position on top of Pool B.
“We made a lot of errors and were very fortunate that we managed to hold on to a close victory,” said relieved Uruguay coach Martin Mendaro.
In the other Pool A match on day three, Georgia defeated hosts Hong Kong 21-8 to finish third behind Tonga and USA. Georgia’s tries were scored by full back David Gulitashvili, number 8 Vakhtang Amiranashvili and replacement wing Zhora Mgebrishvili but crucially missed out on a bonus point that would have also given them 10 points.
The IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy concludes on Saturday when Canada face Hong Kong in the seventh place play-off at 13:00 local time, followed by Georgia v Namibia and USA v Uruguay before Japan and Tonga battle for the coveted title.