New Zealand will once again head to the World Rugby U20 Championship as Oceania champions after beating hosts Australia 43-28 in the title decider at Bond University Rugby Club on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
Both teams went into their final match on the back of emphatic victories over Fiji and Tonga at the Oceania Rugby U20 Championship, but it was New Zealand who secured the title for a fourth successive year.
The Junior Wallabies had taken the lead when winger Matt McTaggert, who had scored four against Tonga earlier in the week, intercepted a long pass from fly-half Kaleb Trask and raced 50 metres to score inside the opening 10 minutes.
However, that score merely sparked the defending champions into life with captain Tom Christie scoring after persistent pressure on the Australian line. Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi, making his first U20 start at full-back, then burst through the defence to set up scrum-half Jay Renton for New Zealand’s second try.
The acid test
Australia lost captain Ryan Lonergan to a yellow card late in the first half and hooker Cody Jackson capitalised to give New Zealand a 24-7 lead at half-time. Jackson added another early in the second half to extend the lead to 31-7, before full-back Mack Henderson crossed for Australia.
New Zealand’s response was quick tries through winger Leicester Faingaanuku and Christie to make it 43-14 with 25 minutes to go, but Australia finished with two tries of their own after a piece of individual brilliance from Tate McDermott and number eight Josh Kemeny off the back of a dominant scrum.
“From a New Zealand point of few we love these trans-Tasman battles and it was a pleasure playing this match tonight. The most pleasing thing this week is what we’ve developed off the field. Credit to my boys but also credit to Australia for putting up a good fight and especially in the front row,” Christie said.
Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore added: “I thought we showed a lot of grit in the back end of the second half to stay in the contest. We can’t turn that much ball over against such a quality opposition.
“Oceania has been really good. The first two games the standard was probably a bit down, but it gave us a run. Tonight, was the one and that’s the acid test you want before we head into our next camp. The boys will take a lot of learnings out of tonight, so it’s been a good week.”
Fiji finish with a flourish
Both teams will now finalise preparations before heading to France for the World Rugby U20 Championship 2018, which takes place from 30 May to 17 June and will see New Zealand bidding to defend the title they won in Georgia last year in record-breaking fashion.
In the opening match of the day Fiji proved too strong for an injury-hit Tonga with Turaganivalu Nabetelevu scoring a hat-trick in a 54-0 victory that secured third place in the tournament.
The two teams had meet in December in the Oceania Rugby U20 Trophy and played out two draws with Fiji securing the region's place at the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2018 by virtue of a try bonus point, but from the moment Nabetelevu scored in the seventh minute it was clear that this wouldn't be as close an encounter with Tonga unable to capitalise on their opportunities.
Apisalome Bogidrau and Tira Patterson both crossed for two tries with Lekima Nasamila and Ilikena Vudogo also getting on the scoresheet for Fiji.
“Coming into the last game tonight we knew what we wanted especially after coming out of two losses against Australia and New Zealand and we wanted to end on a high and we gave it our all and we put it up there on the scoreboard. I am proud of the way the boys worked together as a unit this evening and also how we hammered down our set pieces, so credit to the boys,” said Fiji captain Raikabula Momoedonu.