Atu Moli became the fifth New Zealand captain to lift the distinctive World Rugby U20 Championship title in Cremona on Saturday, following in the footsteps of Chris Smith, Aaron Cruden, Tyler Bleyendaal and Luke Whitelock who did so from 2008 to 2011 respectively.
The final at the Stadio Giovanni Zini had ebbed one way and then the other with New Zealand desperate to end a four-year wait for a fifth title and England seeking a third in a row.
New Zealand hit the front just before half-time and then scored the only try of the second half - through number eight Akira Ioane - within minutes of the restart, a score which proved to be the difference come the final whistle.
The battle to avoid relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2016 also went right down to the final play with Samoa winger Malu Falaniko having a kick from just inside the Italian half to win the match. His kick fell agonisingly short and Italian players fell to their knees in relief, the 20-19 victory in Cremona ensuring they will play in next year's Championship in England.
"I feel really good, we wanted to save ourselves and in the end we did it. I am very proud of my guys, we have had a difficult tournament. I can't speak right now," said an emotional Italy captain Paolo Buonfiglio. "The crowd helped a lot, they were fantastic, not just today but in the whole tournament."
In the other play-offs on the final day, South Africa beat France 31-18 to finish third, while in Viadana Australia survived a late Welsh rally to win 28-23 and finish fifth for the second year running, Ireland edged Scotland 17-9 to secure seventh place and Argentina came out on top of an entertaining match with Japan, winning 38-21 in the ninth place play-off.
FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 21-16 ENGLAND
A repeat of the previous final played on Italian soil in 2011, it was England who struck the first blow - just as they had done four years ago - after an emotional haka by New Zealand when centre Max Clark cut a great line to receive the ball from fly-half Rory Jennings and coast over for the opening try after only five minutes.
Otere Black and Jennings then traded penalties to maintain the seven-point margin as both sides continued to threaten. New Zealand then suffered a big blow when centre TJ Faiane was forced off with a knee injury, necessitating a re-jig of the backline with Jack Goodhue moving into the centres and Vince Tavea-Aso coming onto the right wing.
Tavea-Aso took just 20 seconds to make his mark, somehow escaping from the clutches of two England players to race over in the corner to cut the deficit to just two points with 27 minutes on the clock. England then lost their own full-back Aaron Morris to injury and it was New Zealand who went in narrowly ahead 11-10 thanks to two Black penalties, the second just before half-time.
That lead was extended within six minutes of the restart when New Zealand turned down three points and took a quick tap, going through a few phases before Akira Ioane picked up and dived over the line. However, the number eight was sin-binned three minutes later after being adjudged to tackle Jennings with no arms and in his absence the England fly-half kicked two penalties.
It could have been worse when Howard Packman collected his own kick ahead and then stabbed the ball through for Piers O'Connor to chase. The replacement won the race to touch down but referee Will Houston went to the TMO who correctly ruled he had been ahead of the kicker and the try was wiped off.
Black then restored New Zealand's advantage to five points (21-16) with his third penalty of the match and it was England's time then to turn down a kickable penalty just minutes later, electing for touch but then seeing the men in black halt their drive towards the line to avert the danger.
The score remained that way after both Jennings and Black missed with shots at goal, ensuring the New Zealand celebrations could begin when their fly-half booted the ball into touch with time up on the clock. To the delight of the crowd the celebrations into two hakas, one before and after the trophy presentation.
New Zealand coach Scott Robertson labelled the win a "tough arm-wrestle" before revealing the motivation that had inspired his charges to the title.
"Our theme this year was the Italian campaign of the second division, which involved the New Zealand Maori battalion as well, and we used a lot of their themes, when they were in Italy. They fought hard and had their final in Trieste. We used that tonight. We have our dogtags and we fought for the heroes and the fallen before us so it was pretty empowered and it was amazing."
His counterpart Jon Callard said: ”It was a test level match, both sides were great with the passion and emotion they put on the field. It could have gone either way, the first 20 minutes by us were sensational, but we struggled in keeping the possession in the second half. I can’t ask more to my side, I’m sure that we will see many of them playing at World Cup in 2019 and 2023."
England captain Charlie Ewels, a member of the 2014 winning side, was understandably disappointed. "To beat the best best sides in the world you have got to be on your game from minute one to 80 and I don't think we were today. It's an awesome group of lads, it's been an awesome experience and we will learn lessons from tonight and hopefully come back stronger."
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: FRANCE 18-31 SOUTH AFRICA
Victory would secure France their best ever finish in the U20 Championship and they began in determined mood, their backline causing problems early on for South Africa with both centre Damian Penaud and scrum-half Gauthier Doubrere making scything breaks. It was Arthur Bonneval, though, who danced his way through the defence for a great solo try to make it 8-0 to France in the 11th minute after Meret's earlier penalty.
The bounce of a ball denied Bonneval the potential of a second minutes later, but just as in the semi-final scoring the opening try proved to be a false dawn as the Junior Springboks came charging back, with prop Thomas du Toit scoring the first of four first-half tries for the 2012 champions. France managed to hold up winger Malcolm Jaer, but it wasn't long before South Africa had their second when second-row Jason Jenkins powered over.
South Africa's third and fourth tries came from some direct and abrasive play by their forwards, flanker Dan du Preez, who had replaced his twin brother Jean-Luc in the No.7 jersey for this match, driving over for his first and then having the strength to stretch over for a second on the stroke of half-time to give the Junior Springboks a commanding 28-8 lead at the break.
Whatever French coaches Gerald Bastide and Olivier Magne said at half-time had the desired effects as Les Bleuets came out firing and were rewarded with two tries by the 50-minute mark. First they worked replacement forward Julien Delannoy over within three minutes of the restart and then a sublime chip kick by another replacement, Thomas Fortunel, was perfectly-weighted for Lucas Blanc to run onto and cut the deficit to 10 points.
They were unable to make further inroads, though, with a Brandon Thomson penalty the only score before the final whistle.
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: WALES 23-28 AUSTRALIA
Australia, determined to repeat their fifth place finish of 2014, scored the opening try when number eight Adam Korczyk reached over the line in the sixth minute in Viadana. Wales then lost flanker Phillips to a head knock but some good hands created space for Joshua Adams to squeeze over in the corner.
With Australia piling the pressure on the Welsh defence, a second try followed in the 20th minute through second-row Lukhan Lealaiaulolo-Tui. However it could have been more than 14-5 at half-time with several opportunities having gone begging due to knock-ons.
Wales began the second half strongly, causing problems in the scrum for Australia but fly-half Daniel Jones missed the resulting penalty. Australia then had winger Campbell Magnay sin-binned for a dangerous tackle, but they couldn’t convert their advantage into tries, only two Jones penalties.
Instead it was Australia who stretched their lead to 28-11 with two tries in six minutes just past the hour mark, first replacement prop Folau Faingaa was driven over and then after several phases the ball found Player of the Tournament nominee Jonah Placid who touched down in the right corner after another strong run.
As they have done in previous matches, though, Australia allowed their opponents to come back at them as first a beautiful cross-kick by Jones found winger Elis-Wyn Benham for a try and then - with Magnay having received a second yellow for another dangerous tackle - a great counter-attack saw replacement Lloyd Lewis dot down in the final minute.
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND 17-9 SCOTLAND
Blair Kinghorn gave Scotland an early lead with a penalty, but before 10 minutes was on the clock Ireland had hit back after Joey Carbery’s kick bounced awkwardly and winger Stephen Fitzgerald scored in the right corner.
Scotland cut the deficit with another Kinghorn penalty before both he and Carbery missed with longer efforts to make it 7-6 at half-time, Ireland having suffered a blow when second-row David O’Connor was stretchered off after lengthy treatment for a head injury.
It would remain that way until the 49th minute when Garry Ringrose kicked a penalty after Scotland were caught offside, but their Celtic rivals cut the deficit to a single point with 11 minutes to go with a penalty by George Horne.
However, there was to be no comeback victory as a solid maul created an opportunity for Ireland to secure seventh place, winger Fitzgerald making a great line-break for his second try of the game. Scotland’s finish of eighth, though is still their best ever ranking in the U20 Championship.
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ARGENTINA 38-21 JAPAN
Japan, already guaranteed their best final ranking regardless of the result, started the brighter with number eight Tevita Tatafu’s fifth minute try coming from a quick tapped penalty. Argentina began to find their feet and a solid maul resulted in a try by flanker Jose Deheza just before the water break.
Los Pumitas’ forwards were starting to come to the fore and a strong scrum resulted in another penalty and winger Eugenio Achilli dotting down. Japan hit back when a great break by Ryuji Noguchi saw Hironori Yatomi under the posts, but on the stroke of half-time Deheza grabbed his second try to make it 17-14 to Argentina.
Tatafu acrobatically dived over the line to score his second try in the 51st minute to regain the lead for Japan, but once more Argentina hit back through first second-row Ignacio Larrague and then replacement Patricio Baronio to lead 31-21 with 10 minutes to go.
Japan centre Kajimura was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the 72nd minute and Argentina made their man advantage count, winger Emiliano Boffelli intercepting on their 10-metre line and racing away to score and ensured Los Pumitas matched their ninth place finish of 2014.
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ITALY 20-19 SAMOA
With the loser to be relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy next year the stakes could not have been higher in the opening match in Cremona.
Italy dominated the opening five minutes, twice getting to within a metre of the line before Maicol Azzolini kicked a penalty. Samoa, though, came charging back, Malu Falaniko recovering from missing his first attempt at goal to kick two penalties, either side of a try from Chase Tiatia, the full-back having danced through the Azzurrini defence after a turnover in the Italian 22.
Falaniko missed two more penalties that would have increased the lead beyond 13-6 and they would have paid for it when good Italian pressure saw centre Enrico Lucchin dive over the line, had the try not been ruled out for a punch thrown by number eight Renato Giammarioli who was sent to the sin-bin.
Italy came out after the break with fresh impetus and purpose and were held up over the line three times as they camped on the Samoa 22 for over 10 minutes, repeated penalties resulting in first Samoa captain Josh Dowsing and then prop Junior Halafuka being sin-binned before referee Gary Conway awarded a penalty try.
That cut the deficit to 16-13, but Italy quickly gave away a penalty which Falaniko kicked to ease the pressure on Samoa. However, it proved only a temporary respite as, roared on by the home crowd, Italy came close to scoring again when replacement hooker Luhandre Luus charged 40 metres after his own hack-on only for centre Josh Ioane to save Samoa once again.
With chants of Italia ringing out around the Stadio Giovanni Zino, the Azzurrini continued to pile pressure on the Samoan scrum and repeated infringements saw replacement prop Jarred Adams become the third player to receive a yellow card. A second penalty try followed but then it was Italy's turn to defend for their lives on their own line in the dying minutes, some great defence keeping them out only to then give away a penalty with seven seconds left on the clock to give Falaniko the chance to steal the win for Samoa.