The USA U20s shocked Tonga Monday night in Salt Lake City, beating one of the tournament favorites 22-11 in the opening round of the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
The Junior All Americans handled themselves with a tremendous amount of pride and toughness, in eking out a gritty win. The teams battled every point of contact, and throughout the match the tackles thundered Murray City Park Rugby Stadium.
After a prolonged period of pressure, the USA U20s finally got on the board with a penalty kick from fullback Madison Hughes. While the Americans had possession and territory, tries seemed elusive. They appeared to have scored later on in the half, but the touch judge flag went up to negate that score.
Tonga came back after a series of small errors and penalties put the Americans on the back foot. Two quick penalties put Tonga ahead 6-3 with time winding down in the half. But a superb surge into the Tonga end of the field, sparked by some ferocious rucking and a nifty run from wing Kingsley McGowan forced a penalty that Hughes hit to tie the game 6-6 at halftime.
Tonga came out on fire and scored a try early on to lead 11-6 - threatening out wide and then punishing the Americans up the middle. But the USA kept to their pattern. They worked the phases extremely well, and with Will Magie directing the offense at flyhalf, they put Tonga under pressure, and continued to force penalties. Hughes punished them twice more to make it 12-11.
That’s how the game stayed for a good 15 minutes. The USA camped out in the Tongan end, but struggled to put the game away. A missed lineout through, or a knock-on in contact always seemed to be their undoing. Another try was called back for a foot on the touchline, and it seemed the USA was struggling to put the game away.
At the same time, Tonga kept getting into penalty trouble, and repeated infringements at the tackle area saw them get two yellow cards. A confrontation off the ball produced another for Michael Faleafa, his second, and therefore, the rest of the game.
But after that brush with the tryline, the Americans took control. A turnover gave them the right attacking platform, and they worked the phases superbly before Magie – who looked earlier to have a gap himself – fed Hughes for the killer try. The conversion was missed, however, and so at 17-11 with seven minutes to go, Tonga was still in it.
But excellent defense from the USA put Tonga under pressure, and a kick ahead produced a penalty that eventually led to LSU hooker Cameron Falcon to bust over from short range.
The victory then was complete. The USA showed enormous bravery against a Tonga team that jarred teeth in the tackle and were very dangerous with the ball in hand. They played smart rugby, and kept their composure and their discipline, taking the points on offer and winning the game.
Things don’t exactly get easier for the USA, as they take on Chile on Friday and Russia on Tuesday. But they are now in the driver’s seat in their pool.
Day One JWRT Scores
USA 22-11 Tonga
Georgia 31-17 Canada
Chile 53-19 Russia
Japan 39-36 Zimbabwe
Tries: Hughes, Falcon
Pens: Hughes 4
Pens: Makaafi 2