Organisers of the Oceania Rugby Junior Championship could not have asked for a better climax to the first staging of the competition with host nation Australia and top seeds New Zealand going head-to-head for the title at Bond University on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
The trans-Tasman rivals set up Saturday’s winner-takes-all showdown after claiming victories against Japan and Samoa, who will meet in what is effectively a third-place play-off on the final day.
New Zealand U20s defeated Samoa 36-14, scoring six tries to Samoa's two in an often bruising encounter, while Australia edged out Japan in a 78-point thriller as all four sides build towards the World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy next month.
Blacks and blues
“Tough sums it up,” said New Zealand coach Scott Robertson when asked for his post-match thoughts. “They forced us into errors, they were really aggressive and they got off the line. We couldn’t get any continuity or tempo.
“When you play a team like this you have do those micro things around the breakdown really well and the game can flow from there.
“It was great to have this sort of game before we get to the World Cup.”
Samoa were first on the scoreboard when they made good use of turnover ball to set up a try for Uini Fetalaiga, which was converted by Malu Falaniko.
But tries from flanker Dillon Hunt and Wesley Goosen, the latter converted by Fletcher Smith, put New Zealand in front for the first time at 12-7.
Samoa struggled to maintain possession as New Zealand took a firm grip on the game. A quick break from a lineout by the men in black led to captain Anton Lienert-Brown finishing off a great backs move. With Fletcher converting, New Zealand led by 12 points.
With half-time less than a minute away, New Zealand pressed home their advantage with a try for Smith off the back of a quick tap penalty. The fly-half was unable to convert his own score.
Trailing 24-7 at the break, Samoa came out for the second half fired up and their efforts were rewarded when Marco Fepulea’i muscled his way over from close range.
The momentum swung back New Zealand’s way when Geoffrey Cridge dived over for his side’s fifth try and Mitchell Hunt added the extras. Hunt’s second try of the match completed the scoring.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s title decider, Robertson said: “We’re really excited (to play Australia). We’ll get a new 15 out and it gives our players chance to play for places and to play for a trophy.”
Pure gold entertainment
Australia and Japan contributed fully to an enthralling second match on day two at Bond University.
The lead changed eight times as both sides wrestled for supremacy, but ultimately Australia were able to hold out for a 47-31 win.
Australia held a 20-14 advantage at half-time after tries from Lukhan Lealaiauloto-Tui and Jack Redden were improved by captain James Dalgleish, who also kicked two penalties. Tevita Tatafu and Kosuke Urabe scored for Japan with Ryuji Noguchi tagging on the extras.
Dalgleish kicked a penalty shortly after the restart to put Australia two scores ahead, but Japan hit back through number eight Kosuke Urabe. Noguchi landed the touchline conversion and kicked a penalty to hand the Japanese - who will return to the U20 Championship for the first time since 2009 after winning the sister event, the U20 Trophy in 2014 - a shock one-point lead.
With fresh legs coming off the bench for Australia, a line break from the dangerous Andrew Kellaway created an attacking opportunity for the men in gold and Harry Nucifora scored underneath the posts to take the score to 30-24.
Back came Japan again, Kosuke Makisi catching Australia napping when he raced down the right flank to score a try in the corner, which Noguchi calmly converted to edge Japan in front at 31-30.
Although tested, Australia did not panic and they reclaimed the lead when Lealaiauloto-Tui powered over for his second try of the match. Fly-half Andrew Deegan converted.
Australia finally closed the game out when Alex Newsome scored late on and Deegan added a last-minute penalty.
Speaking post-match, Australia U20 head coach Adrian Thompson said: “I am relieved we had the patience to eventually win the match. However there were many elements of our performance that were lacklustre that we must rectify. We’ll put that win behind us and get back into training.
“Full credit to Japan who really wanted the win today.”
OCEANIA RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP FIXTURES AND RESULTS
New Zealand 75-0 Japan
Australia 33-10 Samoa
Samoa 14-36 New Zealand
Japan 31-47 Australia
13:00 - Samoa v Japan
15:00 - Australia v New Zealand
All times local
Photo credit: Sportography