Japan and Tonga hungry for first title

(IRB.COM) Friday 18 April 2014
 Japan and Tonga hungry for first title
Japan impressively beat Canada to reach the final and will hope it is a case of fourth time lucky after losing three title deciders - Photo: Power Sport Images for HKRFU

Considering how Japan and Tonga started this IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy you’d have forgiven them if they believed that an appearance in the final was beyond them. Instead both will play in the tournament decider on Saturday at the Hong Kong Football Club. 

The champions of this Under 20 showpiece will earn a berth at the IRB Junior World Championship in Italy next year, however, initially this reward looked like wishful thinking for both countries.

This edition of the Trophy has thrown up its fair share of upsets and Japan and Tonga were the first big guns to be on the receiving end of shock defeats. In their first pool games Japan was beaten 33-28 by Uruguay, while Tonga lost heavily 34-10 to Georgia.

But while other sides started the tournament well only to see their chances gradually slip away, Japan and Tonga got their acts together to finish the pool stages strongly. 

After their loss to Uruguay, third seeds Japan righted the ship with a nervy 34-28 victory over Namibia. They then ran in six tries against second seeds Canada to win 37-12 and top Pool B to reach a fourth JWRT final in five years. 

Fourth seeds Tonga followed suit by dispatching hosts Hong Kong 39-16 before knocking out top seeds and former champions USA with a thrilling 28-22 victory in their last Pool A match to reach a first final.

The tough-tackling Tongans scored two tries in each half to collect the bonus point which pushed them to 10 points, equal with the USA after they too collected a losing bonus point. But the Pacific Islanders topped the pool on the head-to-head result.

Contrasting styles of play

It’s a final that will feature two teams with contrasting styles, but both will play to their traditional strengths. Japan will stick to a fast, up-tempo game, while Tonga will play their power game and be strong in the tackle as usual.

“They are a very physical side and we will have to tackle them low to make sure we bring them down,” admitted Japan coach Keisuke Sawaki. “But we will play our usual game. We’ll be looking for quick ball and to play our normal style of Japanese rugby.

“I was happy with the way we played in our last game [against Canada]. But this can be improved a lot. We need to improve fundamental areas, both mentally and physically. It’s always the same – we need to get the fundamentals right.”

Japan are one of the most accomplished teams in Junior World Rugby Trophy history, but have three times suffered heartbreak in the final, losing to Italy in 2010, Samoa in 2011 and USA in 2012, as they bid to return to the Junior World Championship stage again.

Sawaki does not fear the physically bigger Tongans and has every confidence in his team. Not that he put more emphasis on winning this tournament than any other.

“All competitions and tournaments, at all levels, are important for Japan rugby as well as this one,” he said.

In the lead up to the final Tongan coach Fe’ao Vunipola had praised his team’s defensive qualities and fitness levels, maintaining that these were the two key ingredients to their victories. However, he wasn’t underestimating Japan.

Benefits of winning title

“Japan is a very balanced team, well coached and trained. We will try and do what Uruguay did to them,” Vunipola said. 

“Our game plan will be to meet them at their own game and find a way to win. I’m more than happy with the way the team is playing. But I’d like us to improve our set piece and discipline.”  

Vunipola believed the standard was getting higher and higher at Junior World Rugby Trophy level with up and coming nations getting much stronger. It was also crucial that his side beat Japan so that they could play in the Junior World Championship in Italy next year.  

“It’s very important as we have been in this competition since 2011 and hopefully more resources would be pumped in to revitalise Tongan rugby with full-time academy coaches being recruited to coach these boys,” he explained.

“Local rugby [in Tonga] will be given a big boost in both player numbers and supporters particularly at this age group.”

After the disappointment of missing out on the final and a chance to secure an immediate return to the Junior World Championship, the USA must regroup to face 2008 champions Uruguay in the third place play-off. 

Uruguay were the only team not to taste defeat in the pool stages, beating Japan and Namibia 16-13 but conceding a last minute try to draw 18-18 with Canada in round two to ultimately miss out to a Japanese side that scored more bonus points.

Pride at stake in play-offs 

Georgia and Namibia will come face to face in the fifth place play-off, while hosts Hong Kong will hope to build on the spirited display they showed against Georgia to beat Canada in the seventh place play-off.

“The way we performed against Georgia was very encouraging after we played badly against Tonga in the previous game, particularly in the second half,” coach Pale Tauti said.

“We’ll be looking to build on that Georgia performance. We played with a much more positive attitude against them than against Tonga. We want to continue that form.”

Canada, though, will be no pushover. The 2013 runners-up had come into the tournament as number two seeds and will be desperate to restore some pride and avoid finishing eighth. 

“Canada will be looking to bounce back. They’ll be playing with some fire in their belly, so it will not be easy for us,” admitted Tauti. “But I still think we’re in with a chance of getting a win. We have got nothing to lose but we can’t afford to be complacent. 

“It’s the last time this group of players will play together so they’ll be looking to put in a good performance.”