MURRAY — Down 14-0 in the first half to a relentlessly attacking Japanese team, pinned deep in their own territory, the U.S. rugby team needed a spark — anything to get them back in the match.
South Jordan native Tua Laei was looking to provide that spark. After the United States punted the ball out and as Japan passed the ball, Laei charged.
"We felt that if we put good pressure on them off of our kick, something good would happen, and luckily they missed the catch," said Laei. The BYU sophomore-to-be grabbed the ball in full sprint and outran everybody for the try. "Luckily I was there to pick up the ball and run my butt off.
"I feel like that was a game-changer for me and for the whole team."
From there on, the United States battled toe-to-toe with Japan, eventually holding on for a dramatic 37-33 victory in the championship game of the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Murray Park's rugby stadium.
But it wasn't easy.
With the Americans clinging to a four-point lead in the closing minutes, Japan threw wave after wave of attacks at them. But after some tense minutes, Japan dropped a pass, ending their possession and ending the game.
"That last minute, I've never felt so much pressure," said winger Kingsley McGowan. "You just had to want it. You just had to want it."
McGowan said the sold-out crowd was a big factor - especially at the end.
"That's what pushed us over the edge in those last few minutes was our fans screaming for us, chants of 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' It's a crazy feeling. That really builds inside. You want it for them and for yourself."
Both teams wanted it - the winner gets promoted to the Tier 1 World Rugby Championship to play with the big boys of New Zealand and South Africa. Japan, which was trying to win promotion for the third straight year, came close.
"I believed until the finish that we would win," Japan head coach Ryuji Nakatake said. "They were so tough, mentally and physically, in the second half in the last 20 minutes. The players were great. It was a good challenge."
Japan held leads in the 44th, 55th and 61st minutes (there were seven lead changes in all) but couldn't hold on.
U.S. winger Noah Tarrant, who had a hat trick, scored the go-ahead score in the 76th minute. With the middle of the field clogged, the Americans passed the ball to the left side. Laei passed the ball to Tarrant just he was getting hit, giving Tarrant the space and time he needed.
"Their team was blitzing up a lot, so we just decided to swing it out," Tarrant said. "We knew we had daylight. It was a blessing to have daylight and run for it."
By winning the JWRT — the Americans are the first hosts to do so — USA Rugby gains valuable experience to develop its national program.
"It shows we're growing and developing as a rugby country," said McGowan.
The development is critical, as rugby will become an official Olympic sport in 2016. The last time rugby was in the Olympics was in 1924, when a team upset a heavily-favored French side on their home soil. That team was inducted into the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in a ceremony during halftime, driving the importance of the game even more.
"It's amazing to know all your hard work paid off," Laei said. The former Lowland club member played for the High School All-Americans last summer and would be eligible to play for the U-20 team next year in France. But he plans on putting his rugby career on hold to serve an LDS mission.
TONGA 31, GEORGIA 29: The Tongans thrilled their fans in an exciting come-from-behind victory over a tough, physical Georgian team. Manase Folau used his big backs to clear a path for him to punch it in. The two-point conversion kick from Amanaki Leaatoa in the final minute of extra time gave Tonga the lead.
CHILE 43, CANADA 31: In the fifth-place game, the surprising Condors came away from the tournament 2-2 as they used a balanced attack to top talented Canada (2-2).
ZIMBABWE 21, RUSSIA 10: In the first match of the day, the Sables came away with their first victory of the tournament despite losing Andries Van Heerden to a broken leg.
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