(Salt Lake City) Noah Tarrant scored three tries including the 76th-minute game winner to pace United States Under-20 to an electrifying 37-33 win over Japan and the 2012 Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Falling behind 14-0 after 19 minutes, the hosts responded with 5 tries and a penalty but needed an injury-time defensive stand to clinch Saturday's affair. The high-altitude, 95-degree final was the more interesting for pitting Japan's efficiency against an American side which sought to bludgeon its opposition before sending the ball wide.
'We tried to suck in the defense. We thought one on one we had some advantages and wanted to create space', US coach Scott Lawrence explained afterward.
The title win earns the US promotion to 2013's Junior World Championship -- international age-grade rugby's first division. Capping a 4-0 JWRT campaign plus two May wins over Canada, Saturday's victory is arguably USARFU's finest representative achievement since 2005.
For the first half hour, it looked unlikely. Expertly steered by flyhalf Jumpei Ogura and fullback Rikiya Maatsuda and clearing breakdowns with lightning speed, the Japanese controlled territory and seemed to threaten in most every phase.
At 9 minutes, Ogura set up the game's initial score, by wing Seiyu Kohara, with a double cut-out pass. Then, after Kohara's second time over the try line was disallowed for a forward pass, Ogura himself darted through the US defense in the channel between a lineout maul and the backline.
Wing Yutaro Murai seemed sure to score down the left sideline in the 31st minute, but was halted inside the 25 by halfback Nick Boyer.
Whether it was Boyer's come-from-nowhere tackle or the charmed bounce of a high ball dropped into the arms of pursuing US center Tua Laei, who raced 55 yards untouched for the America's first tally at 34 minutes, momentum looked to swing at the half-hour mark.
At 39 minutes Hughes booted a penalty goal, atoning for an earlier miss, just ahead of Tennant's first try, on the left sideline 2 minutes into injury time. Assisted by flanker Alex Goff and Laei, the five-pointer was important not only because it gave the US its initial lead, 15-14 at intermission, but also because Tanner Barnes' right-side break marked the first time the American backs had skinned their opposites.
Center Shunsuke Nunomaki again broke the channel defense to open the second-half scoring, in the first of 6(!) second-half lead changes.
The visitors immediately looked like widening their advantage, driving to inside the 5. But the US snaffled possession and raced out to near the 25, where the counterattack continued through Hughes, whose acrobatic offload sent Tarrant down the left sideline.
The swing may have been the play of the game. The tryline stand foreshadowed the conclusion, while Tarrant's opportunistically feinting the touchdown before moving a dozen yards closer to the sticks, to ease the conversion, also would prove vital in the game's dying moments.
Number eight Yoshitaka Tokunaga struck back at 54 minutes, dotting a simple pickup from scrummage to make the count 28-22. Kingsley McGowan replied almost immediately, taking a pass from the counterattacking Hughes to race through 3 defenders and past another.
Following a water break -- incomprehensibly denied by referee Jerome Garces during last week's equally warm senior match against Italy in Houston -- the US dropped a second consecutive restart and Kohara flew through the defense for his second try, converted by Maatsuda.
Hughes brought the US to within a point, 33-32, after 72 minutes, rewarding persistent forward rushes that now included replacement Mike Te'o, who had scored a pair in Tuesday's Russian win.
Finally came Tennant's hat trick, preceded by a Laei break to the line, yet another forward barrage, and quick hands through the backline.
Yet the Americans could not close out the match, turning over a ball in the backline, and so began a stand that carried 9 minutes into stoppage time (counting the 2 1/2-minute water break). The US made tackle after tackle, conceding but one penalty in the 84th minute (impressively, their first of the final quarter). Japan was forced to run it, ultimately to no avail.
The heart-breaking defeat consigned Japan to a third consecutive runnerup finish in the five-year-old tournament.
For the US, the denounement deserves consideration among some the senior team's more important nail-biters: 2009's Rugby World Cup qualifying win over Canada in Charleston, 2002's RWCQ victory over the Uruguay in San Francisco, or even 1998's goalline finish against the Teros in Buenos Aires, which clinched a berth in the 1999 world championship. At the end of 4 matches in 13 days, in weather close to being too hot to play at all, such was the caliber of the championship stand.
United States Under-20 37 Japan Under-20 33
Tries: Noah Tarrant (3), Tua Laei, Kingsley McGowan
Conversions: Madison Hughes (3)
Penalties: Madison Hughes (2)
Madison Hughes; Kingsley McGowan, Tanner Barnes, Tua Laei, Noah Tarrant; Will Magie (captain), Nick Boyer; Travis Whitock, Cameron Falcon, Henry Hall, Nick Barrett, Pierce Dargan, Glen Thommes, Alex Goff, Tom O'Hara
Reserves: Not available
Tries: Seiyu Kohara (2), Jumpei Ogura, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Yoshitaka Tokunaga
Conversions: Rikiya Maatsuda (4)
Rikiya Matsuda; Seiyu Kohara, Yonghwi Kim, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Yutaro Murai; Jumpei Ogura (captain), Yutaka Nagare; Kengo Kitagawa, Raiko Katsuki, Kanta Higashionna, Kazuhiko Usami, Shinya Osugi, Takuya Ishibashi, Hayato Nishiuchi, Yoshitaka Tokunaga
Reserves: Not available
Referee: Razvan Iordachescu (Romania)
Attendance: 2,300 (estimate)