Junior Japan put the disappointment of three consecutive runners-up finishes behind them to beat four-time reigning champions Fiji Warriors 21-12 and claim their first World Rugby Pacific Challenge title in Suva on Saturday.
It brought to an end the Warriors’ incredible 15-match winning run in the competition that has served as a key part in the development pathway in both Oceania and Asia and left them four points clear at the top of the table.
Meanwhile, in the first match of the day, Tonga A celebrated their first win of the tournament after a 36-10 victory over Pacific rivals Samoa A.
FIJI WARRIORS 12-21 JUNIOR JAPAN
Fielding five of the side that helped to bring home the World Rugby U20 Trophy title in Brazil last July, Junior Japan had players in their ranks who knew what it took to win on the big occasion. However, it was two players who narrowly missed out on selection for that tournament who proved to be key to Junior Japan finally wrestling the Pacific Challenge silverware from the Fiji Warriors.
Winger Haruto Kida scored a try in each half, doubling his overall tally for the tournament in the process, and influential fly-half Rintaro Maruyama kicked three penalties and a conversion in a match that was far tighter than last year’s 66-24 win to the Warriors.
The home side’s bid for a fifth consecutive title got off to a good start, though, centre Epeli Momo scoring a try with the game only three minutes old. Scrum-half Simi Kuruvoli added the conversion.
Not long after, Maruyama clawed three points back from the kicking tee before Junior Japan took the lead in the 17th minute through the first of Kida’s tries.
It was a lead they would never relinquish and one they improved on the stroke of half-time when Maruyama bisected the posts again.
FIJI WARRIORS 12-21 JUNIOR JAPAN >>> Video
Stirred into action, the Warriors upped their game after the break and were rewarded with a try for captain and fly-half Tuidraki Samusamuvodre in the 46th minute. With Kuruvoli missing the conversion, the Warriors still trailed by two points.
An uncustomary lack of accuracy in attack prevented the Fijians converting more pressure into points and Kida’s second try and Maruyama’s conversion put Junior Japan two scores ahead at 21-12.
A scoreless final half an hour followed and Junior Japan were left to celebrate after creating a piece of history.
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Junior Japan centre Seungshin Lee said: “Our aim when we started from the camp back in Japan, was to create one team and to play as one rugby team. We played well against Samoa and Tonga so we believed if we keep playing our rugby we’ll win this game.”
Junior Japan coach Yoshitake Mizuma said: “Yes, Fiji was tough, very tough, but they gave us the opportunity to improve. We are happy to be the first-ever Japan team to win the World Rugby Pacific Challenge.”
Fiji Warriors captain Tuidraki Samusamuvodre said: “It wasn’t the result we wanted. We lost a lot of balls and made a lot of errors and that cost us. But it was a great effort from the boys; it is what it is.”