The U-20s Eagles defeated Japan in the final of the Junior World Rugby Trophy in dry and hot conditions at Murray City Park in Salt Lake City, Utah Saturday night, earning an invitation to the top-tier Junior World Cup for 2013.
The game kept fans on the edge of their seats until the very last possession and USA pulling a come-from-behind victory 37-33.
The scouting report on Japan was they were as consistent on offense as they were defensively. Undefeated coming into the match, they had won three close games, beating Canada, Zimbabwe and Georgia all by margins of less than a try.
For the Junior All Americans, they knew they had to keep battling through the 80 minutes; they knew Japan would.
“We just have to match that and pick up our hustle and aggression to really push us forward in the Japan game,” USA winger Kingsley McGowan said prior to the match.
Japan started just as advertised and putting the Eagles on their heels. Through some very well-timed rucks and crisp passes, Japan found their way deep into USA territory. On the next ruck, flyhalf and captain Jumpei Ogura found winger Seiyu Kohara for the score try of the game and a 7-0 lead.
And with another Japan score from Ogura just the brief water break for 14-0 lead, things looked to be slowly turning Japan’s way.
USA, however, found a slight weakness in an otherwise consistent Japan backline a few possessions later; inside center Tua Laei scooping up a loose ball to run in. USA fullback Madison Hughes got the kick for a 14-7 score.
With back-and-forth play filling up the next ten minutes, Hughes delivered on a penalty kick inside their territory. Then, with the last possession in the USA U20s grasp, a successful ruck set up hands on the blind side of the ruck.
Scrumhalf Nick Boyer threw a smooth pass into a running McGowan and flipped it outside to winger Noah Tarrant to take a 15-14 lead at the break.
Things got a little wilder in the second half, as both teams traded scores throughout the last 40 minutes. Japan got things started with a quick score to go up 21-15. USA answered with a huge momentum boost.
Inside the 5-meter line, Japan had what looked to be a go-ahead score. Working the ball down with methodically passing and rucking. Then USA captain Will Magie made a critical interception. Before being dragged down, Magie managed to find Hughes who took off with pace. With a quick stutter and move back inside, Hughes found Tarrant for the second time 22-21.
The Brave Blossoms were not fazed though as they scored through No.8 Yoshitaka Tokunaga. The Eagle replied immediately, with McGowan showcasing his pace to make it 29-26 USA. Then wing Seiyu Kohara sped in to take the lead back 33-29 with a little more than 15 minutes in the game.
With time winding down, the USA got the ball and worked their way back to about the 22-meter line of Japan.
A few phases and another costly offsides penalty against Japan set up Hughes for his second penalty kick of the day. With the kick, USA was looking at a small deficit 33-32. The only question was, did USA have enough in the tank to put back-to-back scores?
Just ask Tarrant again. The winger from Oceanside got a great pass from outside center Tanner Barnes and took care of the rest for a 37-33 score and a hat trick. Japan, though, didn’t have it in them to just settle. On the ensuing restart, the Blossoms got a penalty and worked their way down the pitch into Eagle territory.
Inside the 5-meter and with time already expired, Japan had it and lost it all in a matter of seconds with a knock-on penalty to seal their fate. Scrumhalf Yutaka Murai fed the ball to hooker Raiko Katsuki who couldn’t hold on. Game, set and match to the USA Eagles for the Junior World Rugby Trophy championship.
Tries: Laei, Tarrant 3, McGowan
Convs: Hughes 3
Pens: Hughes 2
Tries: Kohara 2, Ogura, Tokunaga, Kohara
Convs: Matsuda 4