Samoa and Spain served up a classic final as the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2016 came to a thrilling climax in the gathering gloom of the Harare Sports Club in the Zimbabwe capital.
Even for a tournament where entertainment had been the order of the day throughout, few people would have predicted that the final would have been quite so dramatic.
Leading by eight points with nine minutes left to go, Spain threatened to cause an upset against the side relegated from the U20 Championship in 2015 until number eight Elia Elia struck with his hat-trick try to hand Samoa a lifeline which they gratefully accepted three minutes into extra-time when replacement Tivoli Masaga crossed in the corner.
Despite the disappointment, Spain can take huge credit for their performances in their first outing at this level but it is Samoa who can now look forward to playing against the elite nations again at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 in Georgia.
In the other matches on the final day, Fiji held off a Namibia fight-back to win their third place play-off 44-30, while USA beat Uruguay 32-30 with Ben Cima's last-minute penalty to finish third and Hong Kong picked up their first win, 44-40 against hosts Zimbabwe to finish seventh.
FINAL: SAMOA 38-32 SPAIN
First-time European qualifiers Spain showed no nerves despite the prize at stake and after bossing the early exchanges they deservedly took the lead when full-back Guillermo Dominguez rounded off a multi-phase attack with an arching run to the corner.
Samoa’s response was immediate, Elia bulldozing his way over from close range after a series of pick-and-goes had initially been repelled by determined Spanish defending.
Another smash-and-grab raid resulted in Salesi Rayasi crossing and D’Angelo Leuila was again on the money with the conversion to make the score 16-8.
Cheered on by choruses of Viva España, Spain hit back when Dominguez finished off a first phase move, which started with clean ball being won off the top of the lineout just inside the Samoan half. This time Rabagao was unable to add the extras.
A yellow card for openside flanker Uini Fetalaiga for taking the man out in the air saw Samoa play out the last seven minutes of the first half down to 14 men and the electric Dominguez threatened to complete his hat-trick when he went on another dangerous run down the right. However, this time the Samoan defence was up to the job in hand and the full-back was bundled into touch 10 metres out.
Samoa held out for a 16-14 half-time lead and that advantage was extended four minutes after the restart when Elia built up a head of steam and stepped the last defender to score from 20 metres out.
With scrum-half Jaime Mata expertly controlling play at close quarters, Spain managed to hit back again when replacement hooker Tommy Vaisset burrowed his way over and Rabagao tagged on the extra two points.
Spain continued to press forward and Jon Zabala’s try after 63 minutes was just reward for their efforts. Rabagao slotted the conversion from in front of the posts.
Leading 30-24, Spain opted to kick for goal when Samoa were pinged for being offside in centre field and Rabagao stroked the ball between the posts.
A brilliant break down the right from Laaloi Leiluai, which took him past three defenders and deep into the Spanish 22, set the platform for Samoa to get back on level terms. The ball was recycled and Elia forced his way over and dotted down by the posts to make the score-equalling conversion a formality.
Leuila had a chance to win it in normal time after an almighty shove from the Samoan pack forced a scrum penalty with the stadium clock showing 88 minutes, but his attempt from 40 metres sailed wide and the final went into sudden death extra-time.
Samoa’s forwards worked a drop goal position for Leuila but the defence was up quickly and instead of going for goal the fly-half sensibly kept the ball in hand and found replacement Masaga unmarked wide out on the left with a pinpoint pass. Masaga was left with the simplest of run-ins to spark scenes of jubilation among the Samoan players and fans in the crowd.
Spain, meanwhile, dropped to their knees in despair but they can be proud of their efforts –not only in the final but throughout the tournament as a whole.
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: FIJI 44-30 NAMIBIA
Five first-half tries did the damage for an impressive Fiji and meant that third place at the World Rugby U20 Trophy was wrapped up long before Namibia staged a second-half fight-back of their own.
The Fijians had led 44-0 early in the second half, but Namibia finished the stronger and put some respectability back on the scoreboard, much to the delight of their vocal supporters in the crowd, with four tries of their own.
An early scrum five metres from Namibia’s line brought the first try for Fiji, hooker Vuniani Mokalou having the strength to get over the line from close range with centre Jone Manu adding the conversion to make it 8-0.
Only some strong and committed defence kept Fiji from adding to that early try and it took a bit of magic from Wame Naituvi to finally break Namibia's resolve, the winger receiving the ball just inside his own half and beating his opposite man before stepping inside the last defender to run in the try.
A third try wasn’t long in coming, a series of pick and goes on the Namibia line resulting in a try for scrum-half Ratu Peni Matawalu, the younger brother of Fiji international Nikola stepping right before darting back to dive over the line.
Two tries in quick succession on the stroke of half-time effectively wrapped up the victory for Fiji, the first from close range through prop Lorenzo Mario, the second a typical counter-attack score with Frank Lomani and Matawalu combining to send winger Viliame Tuidrak over in the corner.
Fiji picked up where they left off when play resumed and a good break from Tuidrak took him to within a metre of the line, prop Eroni Mwai going over from close range two phases later to take the islanders out to 44-0.
Namibia managed to steady the ship and hit back with two tries of their own, the first off the back of a driving maul through Obert Nortje and then a great run in from winger Unomasa Kavita had the crowd on their feet again.
They weren’t finished there, though, with prop Hans Breedt atoning for his earlier yellow card by crashing over from close range not once but twice and Namibia – who were already guaranteed their best finish in the U20 Trophy – will wonder what might have been with a better start.
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: URUGUAY 30-32 USA
Fly-half Ben Cima held his nerve to snatch victory for the USA with the final kick of the match, nailing a penalty from just inside the Uruguay half to punish their opponent’s ill-discipline.
Cima, who had tied the scores with a penalty two minutes earlier, raised one finger in salute as the kick sailed between the posts before being mobbed by his relieved team-mates.
The match had appeared to be over when USA knocked on metres from the Uruguay line, but a flag from the assistant referee for a punch to the face by Federico Bruno saw the replacement sent off.
It was Uruguay who had opened the scoring when full-back Luis Zeballos raced down the touchline at Harare Sports Club after only six minutes.
The lead lasted only a few minutes as USA captain Hanco Germishuys continued his impressive form with his eighth try of the tournament, the number eight charging through Martin Fitipaldo to run round under the posts to give Cima an easy conversion.
Uruguay hit back immediately as some more good handling and passing out of the tackle took them close to the USA line, second-row Lorenzo Surraco driving forward before flanker Sebastian Pfeiff got the ball down.
The score remained at 14-8 for 10 minutes until Cima and full-back Mitch Wilson combined well for the fly-half to take the return pass and score the Junior All-Americans’ second try. His conversion came back off the post to leave the scores tied.
Just before the half-hour mark USA hit the front again, a quickly taken tap penalty took them within inches of the line and the ball was quickly recycled out to flanker Malon Al-Jiboori, who was too powerful to be stopped, despite the presence of two defenders.
Cima pulled the conversion wide and his missed tackle on Pfeiff then allowed the flanker to burst through the defence and send scrum-half Lucas Duran over, Felipe Etcheverry’s conversion the final act of a frenetic first half of end to end action.
Uruguay’s lead grew to 30-20 within minutes of the restart, a good break by centre Guillermo Williamson almost coming to nothing when he threw a wild pass out of the tackle, but Fitipaldo gathered and went over for Los Teritos.
Tempers flared in the aftermath and referee Ricardo Sant'Anna sent both Fitipaldo and USA centre Brian Hannon to the sin-bin before Etcheverry’s conversion. They were soon joined by Surraco, but the USA weren’t able to make their man advantage count.
The score remained that way until the 69th minute with both sides guilty of trying to force things and ill-discipline, but then Germishuys tapped a five-metre penalty and was stopped just short, the ball taking a long time to come back before Cima sent centre Ducan van Schalkwyk through the gap to make the score 30-26. Cima added the extras and then came up trumps twice more in a thrilling finale.
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ZIMBABWE 40-44 HONG KONG
Hong Kong withstood a strong second-half fight-back from Zimbabwe to record their first-ever World Rugby U20 Trophy victory.
After a first half free-for-all which produced 10 tries in total and a 44-28 lead in their favour, Hong Kong held on to win a pulsating game 44-40.
Zimbabwe hooker Lebogang Ngwenya started the scoring spree after just three minutes when he finished off his own quickly-taken lineout inside the Hong Kong 22.
But Hong Kong then reeled off three unanswered tries in the space of six minutes, outside centre James Karton grabbing the first after a good handling move involving outside backs Matthew Worley and James Christie.
Zimbabwe gifted Hong Kong their next try when attempts to run the ball inside their own 22 ended in disaster, Austin Robertshaw benefitting with an easy run-in after a spilt pass, and the Young Sables then found themselves 20-6 in arrears after Liam Owen broke through and scored.
Zimbabwe captain Connor Pritchard led the fight-back with a 15th minute try, before right winger Sam Phiri showed great footballing skills to regather his own kick ahead and then twisted and turned his way out of a tackle to go over in the corner.
The Young Sables took the lead as a breathless first quarter came to a close when a break from livewire scrum-half Ernest Mudzengerere led to a try for Phiri’s fellow wing, Tawanda Ngosi. Parity was soon restored though as Robertshaw got on the end of an inside pass from full-back Christie for his second after a good break down the left by Karton. Owens nailed a difficult conversion.
Scrum-half Jack Combes scampered over from a quickly-taken tap penalty for try number five before Worley rounded off an incredible first 40 minutes after Zimbabwe had been reduced to 13 men following yellow cards for Ngwenya and number eight Daniel Nyamugama for dangerous tackles.
Zimbabwe needed to get the first score of the second half to stay in touch and they duly obliged when second-row Aidan Burnett burst off the back of an attacking scrum and powered through the attempted tackles of Tang Cheuk Hang and Owens.
The Young Sables continued to dominate territory and possession but a lack of composure in attack, allied to strong breakdown work from Hong Kong number eight Pierce Mackinlay-West (pictured) in particular, prevented them scoring any more points until the 73rd minute. For once, the ball was safely transferred down the line and Angus Bruce and Tarisai Mapfumo combined well in midfield to put the winger through.
Worley produced a good tackle on Ngosi to keep Hong Kong’s line intact with a couple of minutes to go, and that was the Asian side’s last real scare as they controlled the game well to play out the closing stages in Zimbabwe’s half to claim seventh place in the tournament.