Japan will be competing among the elite of international age-group rugby once again in 2020 after digging deep to beat Portugal by the slenderest of margins in the final of the World Rugby U20 Trophy on Sunday.
Leading 34-28 with two minutes left to play, Portugal were on the verge of securing their first title, but Japan conjured up a try with two minutes to go to win 35-34 and book their place at next year’s U20 Championship in Italy instead.
It was a fitting end to what has been a brilliant tournament and brought the curtain down on a day of high drama in the Brazilian city of São José dos Campos, where two of three matches were settled by three points combined and another was decided in sudden-death extra-time.
Following on from a comfortable 52-13 win for Canada over Kenya in the fifth place play-off, Tonga clung on to win the bronze medal against Uruguay in a match that would have needed extra-time had Matias D'Avanzo's conversion gone over instead of striking the upright.
Hosts Brazil then required a drop goal in the second minute of extra-time to win their first ever U20 Trophy match in the seventh-place play-off before Japan and Portugal put on an epic finale that will live long in the memory.
FINAL: JAPAN 35-34 PORTUGAL
In a free-flowing match unrecognisable from the weather-affected final played between these two teams in Montevideo in 2017, Japan once again came out on top to secure promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship – but not before Portugal gave them the mightiest of scares.
Two-time former champions Japan raced into a 14-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes but Portugal showed great resolve and no little skill to fight their way back into the contest at the Estadio Martins Pereira.
From the 36th to the 76th minute, the Portuguese were ahead on the scoreboard despite being second-best at scrum time throughout, but a try from full-back Ryosuke Kawase and the all-important conversion from Ryuto Fukuyama denied them a place in the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time.
In a pulsating first half, full of energy, it was the Japanese who scored first through number eight Tamakasa Maruo, Fukuyama converting for a 7-0 lead.
Having then conceded a brilliant counterattack try to flanker Halatoa Vailea following a superb break by winger Yuichiro Wada straight from the restart, Portugal scored from the next kick-off, test-capped centre Rodrigo Marta plucking the ball out of the air to race home unopposed down the left flank from 30 metres out, Jeronimo Portela converting from the touchline.
Portugal thought they had scored again at the end of the first quarter but play was called back for a forward pass in the build-up. However, they did not have to wait long to get on level terms, Portela converting prop David Costa's 32nd-minute try shortly after Japan full-back Kawase had received a yellow card.
Raffaele Storti then took his tally of tries to the tournament to eight in the 37th minute with a run that took him past three defenders and all the momentum appeared to be with the Europeans, especially when Japan playmaker Fukuyama followed Kawase into the sin-bin.
Having started the second period down to 13 men and a score behind at 21-14, Japan fell further behind when Portela kicked his first penalty of the match. But the driving maul provided Japan with a route back into the final, hooker Mamoru Harada coming up with the ball.
Storti then equalled the record for most tries scored in a single U20 Trophy tournament, set by Robert Lilomaiava of Samoa in 2011, with his second of the match on 53 minutes.
The power of the Japanese scrum led to a penalty try in the 66th minute and, at this stage, the side relegated from the U20 Championship in 2018 looked favourites to finish the job despite still trailing by a point.
Portugal had one last score up their sleeves, though, the forwards doing the hard yards before an overlap was created for winger Francisco Salgado, who easily stepped the final defender to cross the line and make the score 34-28 with 12 minutes remaining.
Drawing on all their experience from five previous U20 Trophy finals, Japan refused to panic and after a sustained period of pressure, the Portuguese were powerless to stop Kawase scoring. Fukuyama was left with the simplest of conversions and the fly-half duly knocked over the two points for a win that will see Japan rub shoulders with the powerhouses of under-20 rugby once again in 2020.
It also ensured captain Shota Fukui created a piece of U20 Trophy history, having been part of the 2017 winning side as a winger and getting his hands of the trophy as captain and number eight in 2019 to become the first player to win the title twice.
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: URUGUAY 27-29 TONGA
They talk about sport being a game of inches, and that was definitely the case in a nail-biting encounter between two evenly-matched teams that ended with a first U20 Trophy medal in five years for Tonga.
Tonga handed Uruguay a chance to take the match into extra-time when they needlessly conceded possession in the dying stages and allowed Uruguay to set up the platform for hooker Juan Martin Rippe to score from a driven lineout. With just two points separating the sides, a successful conversion would have taken the match beyond 80 minutes but, to the utter dismay of Los Teritos fly-half Matias D'Avanzo, the ball cannoned off the far upright.
After an exchange of penalties between the respective fly-halves, Filipe Samate and D'Avanzo, Uruguay scored the first try of the match in the 14th minute. Following a patient build-up, D'Avanzo threw a long cut-out pass to flanker Felipe Lombardi who supplied the finish. D'Avanzo slotted a difficult conversion.
Six minutes later Uruguay scored again in the same left corner when a pass from full-back José Iruleguy found Baltazar Amaya in space on the outside and his try took the score to 15-3.
However, Tonga ended the half on level terms thanks to two tries in the space of six minutes. Winger Lote Fakatou gathered Samate's chip ahead on the bounce to score the first before centre Rodney Tongotea found a gap in the opposition defence to run in unopposed.
The Pacific Islanders started the second half strongly and a quickfire double from mobile loose-head prop Apitoni Toia, the first converted by Samate, handed Tonga a 27-15 lead with half an hour left to play.
Los Teritos' forwards came to the rescue just before the hour mark when they gave referee Nehuen Rivero no option but to award them a penalty try following a series of dominant attacking scrums.
When Tonga hooker Lisivani Tuifa was sent to the sin-bin in the 65th minute, all the momentum was with the South Americans, however, the Islanders looked comfortable for the most part in defending their seven-point cushion while down to 14 men.
But with a couple of minutes left to play, they coughed up possession on halfway and then conceded a needless penalty to allow Uruguay to kick for the corner and set up a driving lineout play which ended in a try for Rippe.
Crucially, though, D'Avanza wasn't able to add the conversion and while the Tongans jumped up and down in delirium, the fly-half sunk to his knees in despair at the thought of what might have been.
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: KENYA 13-52 CANADA
Scrum-half and captain Will Percillier finished the tournament as top point scorer after leading Canada to their best placing at the U20 Trophy since they were runners-up in 2015.
After what Percillier described as "an up and down" tournament for his team, Canada produced their most consistent performance to clinch fifth place ahead of a Kenya team playing at this level for the first time in a decade.
Fittingly it was Percillier who got the scoring underway, the blond Stade Francais number nine taking an inside pass from full-back Thomas Isherwood to scamper home and score the first five of his 17 points on the day, which took his overall total to 65. Antoine de la Fontaine added a second and Canada had established a 12-0 with 15 minutes gone.
Michael McCarthy's try from the back of a driving maul on 35 minutes, converted by Percillier, made for a 19-8 interval scoreline.
Enjoying the sun on their backs, Canada turned up the heat in the second to score five tries, McCarthy starting the ball rolling with a second scored in almost identical fashion to the first.
With the score at 26-8, Canada found themselves down to 14 men when flanker Quentin James was sin-binned and Kenya took advantage to score the try of the match, winger Geofrey Okwach showing great footwork to bamboozle the Canadian defence.
Okwach, however, was despatched to the sin-bin himself for cynical play at the ruck in the build-up to the first of Nick Carson's two tries on 65 minutes. Carson's brace came either side of a try for winger David Richard before replacement Siaki Vikilani added further gloss to the win.
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: BRAZIL 32-29 HONG KONG
Having narrowly missed out on a maiden U20 Trophy win in the pool stages against Kenya, Brazil looked set for more heartbreak after letting another winning position slip against Hong Kong. However, Os Curumins held their nerve in an extra-time sudden-death shootout, after the scores were tied at 29-29 at the end of 80 minutes, to avoid collecting the wooden spoon in their debut international age-grade rugby tournament.
Fly-half Lucas Spago, who had had a conversion charged down earlier in the match, became the home side's hero, coolly slotting over a drop goal from the 22-metre line to send the fans inside the Estadio Martins Pereira into raptures.
The nerves of the occasion appeared to have got the better of Brazil early on and Hong Kong capitalised to open the scoring in the fourth minute through centre Kyle Kitney after a searing run from full-back Paul Altier, who missed the conversion and an earlier penalty attempt.
A bulldozing run by tight-head Henrique Ribeiro got Brazil on the front foot, though, and powerfully-built centre Gabriel Zurca eventually crashed over, Spago converting to hand Brazil a 7-5 lead.
Hong Kong came up with a brilliant response towards the end of the first quarter, an out-the-back offload from winger Oliver Duffy releasing Altier down the left. Realising the defensive cover was coming across, the test-capped player kicked the ball downfield and then showed an electric turn of pace to beat Spago to the touchdown.
The back-and-forth nature of the match continued as both sides gave it a real go and Ribeiro got a deserved try in the 27th minute when he muscled his way over from close range to level the scores at 12-12. Spago took too long with the conversion close to the posts, and his kick was easily charged down.
The fly-half redeemed himself shortly afterwards, though, scoring a try after an angled run from the base of a ruck while Duffy was in the sin bin.
Hong Kong were down to 13 men at the start of the second half when hooker Callum Tam joined him on the sidelines, and Brazil scored again, Zurca getting his second after bumping off one would-be tackler and carrying a couple more over the line with him.
Altier pulled three points back from the tee once Hong Kong were restored to their full complement of players before converting Joe Knight's try on 65 minutes to make the scoreline 24-22 to Brazil.
With the match on a knife-edge, Brazil showed great composure to work a try for hard-working flanker Rafael dos Santos, the San José local pirouetting out of a tackle to score wide out on the right for what appeared to be the match-clinching try.
Brazilian supporters, though, have grown used to their side keep them on their toes in recent times with a series of dramatic finishes to matches and this one was no exception. Poor handling and ill-discipline allowed Hong Kong one last chance to salvage something from the match and, after kicking a penalty to the corner, replacement Kyle McCallum crashed over at the back of a maul, Altier holding his nerve to bisect the posts and send the match into extra-time.
Despite being down to 14 men due to Francisco Gabriel's yellow card immediately prior to Hong Kong's try, Brazil controlled possession expertly from the kick-off and the forwards did the hard yards, driving up the middle, to set up the perfect platform for a drop goal opportunity.
Spago dropped back into the pocket and coolly slotted a left-footed kick through the posts just before Hong Kong's onrushing players could get to him. It was the first and only drop goal of the tournament and one of great significance for Brazilian rugby.
Photo: Joao Neto / FotoJump / Brasil Rugby