Uruguay were the width of a post away from making it through to the final of the World Rugby U20 Trophy as the pool stages of the competition came to a dramatic conclusion at the Estadio Domingo Burgueño in Punta del Este.
Having beaten Hong Kong with a bonus point in front of an enthusiastic crowd that fincluded 1500 invited schoolchildren from the Maldonado district, Uruguay still needed Fiji to do them a favour in the following match against Pool B rivals Portugal to progress through to Sunday’s showpiece in Montevideo.
Fiji gave it all they had got, clawing their way back from a 13-0 deficit, but a last-minute penalty miss from full-back Jamie Kotz meant their efforts were in vain and a mightily relieved Portugal held on for a 16-13 win that saw them top the pool by a single point.
While it will be Portugal’s first-ever appearance in a Trophy final, Japan can look forward to their fifth after they overcame Namibia in the decisive match in Pool A. After relegation from the U20 Championship in 2016, Japan are now only 80 minutes away from an immediate return to the top tier of age-grade international rugby.
Uruguay and Namibia will contest the bronze medal match on Sunday, while Chile play Fiji for fifth spot and Hong Kong and Canada do battle in the seventh-place play-off.
Japan 33-13 Namibia
Faulua Makisi continued his fine scoring spree at the World Rugby U20 Trophy to keep alive Japan’s hopes of winning immediate promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship.
The 20-year-old flanker, capped twice at senior level, added to his two tries in last weekend’s emphatic win over Canada with a hat-trick against a Namibian side that fought them all the way.
A tight first half saw both sides score twice, Japan holding a 14-13 lead after Kosuke Naka added the extras to tries from Hinata Takei and Makisi.
Luke Jansen and Collins Omalu crossed the line for Namibia as the African U19 champions chased the win that would put them into their first-ever World Rugby U20 Trophy final. Cliven Loubser was unable to improve either score but he made amends on the stroke of half-time by knocking over a penalty.
A three-try burst between the 51st and 61st minutes, which saw Makisi bring up his hat-trick, put the game out of Namibia's reach though, as Japan established a 33-13 lead that they successfully protected until the final whistle.
Portugal 16-13 Fiji
A late penalty goal from the trusty boot of Jorge Abecasis handed Portugal a famous win that sees them through to their first-ever Trophy final.
However, Portugal were nearly masters of their own downfall as they squandered a 13-0 lead and then handed Fiji a golden opportunity to draw the game with only seconds remaining.
Fortunately for them, Fijian full-back Jamie Kotz struck the upright with his 20-metre penalty attempt and the Junior Os Lobos held onto the ball for the remaining seconds of the match.
After beating Uruguay (20-18) and Hong Kong (31-24) in the first two games, Portugal needed to defeat Fiji in their final Pool B fixture to secure a place in the final.
In a flawless first half performance, Abecasis kicked two penalties and converted Francisco Vassalo’s try to hand Portugal a 13-0 interval lead.
Fiji’s cause was not helped by losing two of their front-five forwards to the sin-bin in quick succession as the half-hour mark approached, meaning they played out the majority of the half down to 13 men.
The Pacific Islanders came out firing at the start of the second half, scoring within two minutes of the restart when centre Filimoni Savou crashed through a couple of tackles. With Jamie Kotz kicking the conversion and adding two quick penalties, all of a sudden Fiji were right back in the game at 13-13.
A third penalty from Abercasis edged Portugal back in front with nine minutes to go but there was still time for some late drama. Attempting to run the clock down with a series of pick-and-goes inside their 22 instead of clearing their lines with a kick to touch, Portugal were penalised at the breakdown to hand Kotz with the simplest of chances to draw the game, and ultimately hand Uruguay a place in the final.
Kotz had kicked three from three up to that point and seemed certain to break Portugese hearts; however, to his dismay, his effort rebounded off the left hand post to leave Portugal celebrating a famous victory.
Uruguay 66-10 Hong Kong
Los Teritos got off to a sluggish start in pursuit of the bonus-point win they needed to stand any chance of making the Trophy final, falling behind to a sixth-minute Matt Worley penalty before posting two tries for an unsatisfactory 14-3 half-time lead.
Agustín Della Corte dived over for the first of two tries on the day for the captain, while Uruguay’s second try came from James McCubbin. Both were converted by Alejo Piazza.
The second half was a different story altogether with Los Teritos adding eight more tries to their tally and only conceding one in reply.
Once winger Valentín Grille returned from the sin-bin after taking an opponent out in the air, Uruguay turned on the after-burners to score four tries in a devastating eight-minute spell. With Della Corte and McCubbin getting their second scores of the day in addition to tries from Martín Fitipaldo and Manuel Leindekar, Los Teritos produced an exhibition of running rugby that befitted a venue famous for hosting rugby sevens.
Juan Francisco Medeiros, Joaquín García, Grille, and finally Manuel Portela joined them on the scoresheet as Uruguay took the score past the half-century mark in the final quarter
Hong Kong’s only try was scored in the final minute by hard-working number eight Max Denmark but it was purely academic.
Canada 28-45 Chile
Chile produced a superb second-half performance to win their first match of the tournament and seal third place in Pool A.
Tomas Sales converted an opportunistic try from Diego Salas and then kicked a penalty while Matt Beukeboom was in the sin-bin as Chile went 10-0 up.
But Canada defied their one-man disadvantage to score through Niko Clironomos, captain George Barton taking the ball to the line before unleashing his midfield partner on a 50-metre run.
The North Americans continued to dominate possession but it took until the 33rd minute for the scoreboard to reflect that, captain Barton taking it upon himself to put his side in front with their second try. Will Kelly’s second successful conversion made it 14-10 to Canada heading into the break.
The defensive frailties that came to light in Canada’s first two games of the competition became all too apparent again in a disastrous third quarter for the men in red as Chile posted three unanswered tries, all converted by Salas. Martín De Oto was first to cross, followed by a quickfire brace from outside centre Lucca Avelli.
Aidan McMullan scored a double of his own for Canada who had to see out the remaining 15 minutes of the match with 14 men following Fraser Hurst’s red card for foul play. Within a minute of the dismissal, Piero Zunino piled over from close range before Rodrigo Manzano added a sixth try for Chile.
McMullan’s second score earned Canada their first bonus point of the competition but that will come as little consolation to them having arrived in Uruguay with such high hopes.
Photos: Frankie Deges
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