In an epic match that had seven lead changes, the USA Rugby Junior All-Americans took out Japan 37-33 in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy final.
With Japan down by four points the Brave Blossoms desperately tried to score with time expired but a knock on after over a dozen phases left the Japanese players sprawling distraught and the USA in pure ecstasy as the ref blew the final whistle.
Credit to the Japanese squad though who had a rocky road to the their third consecutive JWRT final and performed very well. Arguably the Japanese played a more structured and precise game, but the USA trumped them with entrepreneurialism and outright grit.
In the first half, the Japanese went up 14-0. It wasn’t until the last ten minutes of the first half that the USA got on the board. Utah local, Tua Laei, gathered a botched kick from Japan to scurry to the line and ignite the crowd and his own team. Madison Hughes then struck a penalty to bring the score to 10-14.
Noah Tarrant, who would score a hat trick in the encounter, would strike just before halftime to put the USA up 15-14.
Japan set the tone in the second half, scoring through their inside center, Shunsuke Nunomaki, after a nice line break. A rapid-fire volley of tries ensued.
Tarrant scored his second in the left corner from a 95-meter counter attack. USA captain Will Magie pinched the Japanese ball in the breakdown, offloaded to Madison Hughes who offloaded to Tarrant. (Both offloads would fall in the ‘miraculous’ category.)
The 22-21 lead was short lived though as Japan answered back to reclaim the lead. Kingsley McGowan scored a scorcher and then his opposite number, Japanese winger Seiyu Kohara replied with a five pointer.
Madison Hughes hit a penalty with ten minutes to go to put the USA down by only a point.
It was Tarrant’s final try that came from a heroic ball from outside center Tanner Barnes that put the USA up by four crucial points. Japan would have to score a try to win.
A barrage of a very disciplined Japanese attack didn’t phase the USA and chants of ‘U-S-A’ filled Murray Rugby Park. Finally, a knock on ended it and the USA was JWRT champions.
After the win, Tarrant credited his teammates for opening up space for him. That space was found when the USA backs noticed the Japanese defense was blitzing in midfield and recognized that quick flat ball could open something up. It did on two occasions for Tarrant.
All of the USA players would say that ultimately it was team chemistry that helped them get through the last minutes and to grind as a team.
“Those extra weeks training together really worked,” Tarrant said of the very close-knit squad, “It’s emotional because some of us wont’ be able to play next year…It’s a blessing to be around these kinds of people.”
BYU sophomore Tua Laei’s opening try seemed to engage the USA’s attack, but defensive adjustments at half time and a solid game plan helped deliver the win.
“Throughout the whole practice week, we practiced the slow ball that they always do. They’re so patient and so disciplined. When they went slow ball, it gave us time to line back up and that’s what we worked on all week and it paid off,” said Laei.
After going undefeated in Canada to warm up for the JWRT, then training at altitude in Denver and Steamboat Springs, the local boy summed it up concisely: “Hard work pays off.”
Their hard work now puts the USA in the IRB Junior World Championship, the elite Junior Rugby competition in the world where they will compete with the likes of South Africa, New Zealand, England, and Wales.
USA Rugby Junior All-Americans 37
Tries: Laei, Tarrant (3), McGowan
Conversions: Hughes (3)
Penalties: Hughes (2)
Tries: Kohara(2), Ogura, Nunomaki, Tokunaga
Conversions: Matsuda (4)
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