Spain have made it to the top tier of international age-grade rugby for the first time after winning a sensational World Rugby U20 Trophy 2023 final against Uruguay.
And on the evidence of their performance in Nairobi on Sunday, they will look right at home in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Both teams played some breathtaking rugby and the good-sized crowd in Nyayo National Stadium was treated to a spectacular 10-try match that went one way and then the other before ending 39-32 to Spain.
For Spain, there was joy but for Uruguay, the heartbreak of missing out on a second title after their last win in the inaugural final in 2008 was there for all to see.
The final rounded off a brilliant last day of action in the Kenyan capital, one in which there were also big wins for Scotland, Zimbabwe and USA.
Openside Monroe Job scored a hat-trick on his U20 debut as clinical Scotland secured third place in the U20 Trophy with a 12-try, 83-10 win over Samoa in the bronze final.
Earlier USA opened the final day’s action at the World Rugby U20 Trophy, securing a seventh-place finish with a comfortable 47-22 win over Hong Kong China.
But the home supporters inside the Nyayo Stadium didn’t get the finish they wanted after Kenya lost 64-10 to Zimbabwe in the fifth-place match. It was the Junior Sables’ biggest-ever win and highest score in the competition.
URUGUAY 32-39 SPAIN
Suffering from what seemed to be big-match nerves, Spain got off to the worst possible start when scrum-half Pablo Perez Merono was sent to the sin bin with only 45 seconds gone for tackling a player without the ball not once but twice, and Uruguay immediately took advantage when full-back Juan Carlos Canessa kicked the resulting penalty.
Guillermo Juan Storace then showed the form that has seen him start every game for Los Teritos in midfield with an electric break through the heart of the Spanish defence. When he was eventually taken to ground 20 metres out, the inside-centre had the presence of mind to pop the ball up to onrushing flanker Francisco Deffemiinis, who marked his return to the team by brushing off two defenders for the opening try.
Spain then spurned an opportunity to get points on the board when the normally reliable Beau Finnian Peart pushed his penalty attempt wide. And it was looking even bleaker for Spain when Uruguay scored again from a kick return, a feature of their play in Kenya. Canessa took the ball just inside his own half and then fed Juan González, who sped down the right touchline and then darted back inside. With Canessa converting, Uruguay had punished Spain to the tune of 15 points during the sin-bin period.
At last, Spain recovered from their slumber and once back to 15 players, they worked a good try for Borja Ibanez Escalera after left winger Mario Coronado Mico hit the line at pace and then switched the point of attack with a neat inside pass that gave the openside just enough space to find his way to the line.
By now, Spain were well and truly into their stride and a multi-phase attack resulted in a second try, loose-head prop Cristian Moreno Fernandez supplying the finish from five metres out. With Peart atoning for his earlier penalty with both conversions, the horror start endured by Spain had all but been erased.
Attack had dominated defence up to that point but Spain’s next points came about thanks to a brilliant turnover penalty won by Daniel Catanzaro Omati. Peart backed himself from 45 metres out and slotted the three points.
With half an hour gone, Spain had the lead for the first time and they extended it further as they completely dominated the latter stages of the first half, Escalera scoring his second after the powerful-built centre Catanzaro Omati had softened up the Los Teritos defence on the crash-ball from a strong scrum platform.
Referee Saba Abulashvili’s whistle blew for half-time as soon as the flags were raised to signal Peart’s conversion was good but, in reality, Spain wouldn’t have wanted play to come to a stop.
Indeed, it was Uruguay who started the second half as they had done the first, on top. Uruguay’s set-piece had been solidified by some important half-time substitutions but if Los Teritos were going to get back in the match, the feeling was that it would be down to their slick-handling backs and four minutes after the restart they showed their class. A big carry by Storace had Spain back-pedalling before fly-half Icaro Amarillo’s put Canessa away in the corner with a brilliant behind-the-back offload.
A failure to exit from their own 22 undid their hard work though. Spain charged down a box kick clearance and won the ball back before spreading it wide to the left to enable Gabriel Rocaries to cross for his fifth try of the tournament.
Just when his side needed it most, Martin Civetta got Uruguay right back in it again, the replacement forward showing a brilliant turn of pace to race home from 50 metres out. With the conversion, Uruguay had pegged back Spain’s lead to just four points, at 31-27, with the final quarter approaching.
Uruguay then responded to Marcel Sirvent Sanso’s 48-metre penalty for Spain with their fifth try of the match and, this time, it was all down to the forwards. A powerful rolling maul saw them advance 30 metres into the Spanish 22 before brilliant hooker Máximo Lamelas decided to go for it and burst off the back. He was stopped a few centimetres short but there was no stopping replacement scrum-half Pedro Hoblog from close range. Canessa’s conversion would have levelled the scores but he sent his kick wide of the posts.
Spain’s brilliant breakdown work stymied Uruguay’s attacking efforts thereafter and they managed to close out a famous win with a try from replacement Diego Gonzalez a few minutes from time.
ZIMBABWE 64-10 KENYA
Zimbabwe spoilt Kenya’s closing party with a 64-10 victory in the fifth-place play-off on the final day of the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Nairobi on Sunday.
Both teams impressed during the Pool stages, each winning one of three matches and running their other opponents close, but this was a one-sided affair dominated by the superior power and slick offloading game of the Junior Sables, who ran in 10 tries in all.
Despite a noisy home crowd, it was all Zimbabwe from the first whistle and they took the lead in the ninth minute through Tawanda Matipano. The winger improvised from a loose pass to kick ahead and touch down in the right-hand corner after an impressive turn of pace.
Matipano bagged another try in the 17th minute, capitalising on a powerful carry from number eight Shingi Manyarara, who recently signed for Racing 92, to score in the same corner.
Try number three soon followed, this time inside centre Dion Khumalo cutting a devastating angle after a lineout to power over near the posts and Zimbabwe were in full control when prop Tadiwa Chinwada barrelled over from close range just before the half-hour mark.
A devastating team move down the left resulted in winger Benoni Nhekairo touching down for the fifth try before half-time.
Further scores from Manyarara and Simbarashe Kanyangarara extended Zimbabwe’s lead in the second half but Kenya found a glimmer of hope when Khumalo received a red card for a dangerous tackle just before the hour mark.
Kenya scored their first try from the resulting penalty through replacement James Tsinalo, but the hosts couldn’t make their numerical advantage count and it was Zimbabwe who scored next, a penalty try compounded for Kenya by two yellow cards.
Further scores, including a trademark flying finish from replacement Shadreck Mandaza, put a gloss on the scoreline and no doubt left Zimbabwe – who began the tournament by conceding 51 points in the first half to Scotland – wondering what might have been.
SCOTLAND 83-10 SAMOA
A hat-trick from debutant Monroe Job and doubles from hooker Corey Tait and tighthead Cam Norrie allowed Scotland to overpower Samoa, scoring 12 tries in the process.
If Andrew McLean had converted Will Reid’s last-minute try, Scotland would have signed off the tournament with the third-highest match score of all time in the U20 Trophy.
And Job could have had one more, after replacement Will Robinson’s break midway through the second half, but the freshly arrived flyer was bundled into touch just before he could get his pass away. Robinson had landed in Nairobi just over a day before coming off the bench, as coach Kenny Murray scrambled for injury cover – and later scored a try of his own as the Scots ran riot.
Third place was secured by the time referee Robin Kaluzniak called an end of the opening period, as Scotland ran in five first-half tries, stretched Samoa from one side to the other and overpowered them in the set-piece.
Job’s tries were off the training-ground set-piece template. Three times – starting as early as the fifth minute – he came up with the ball at the back of an unstoppable Scottish maul. It was a successful scoring method the side would repeat several times in the match, as Samoa struggled with their discipline.
The first of Tait’s brace – a variation on the lineout-maul-try theme – came four minutes after Job’s first international touchdown. Scrum-half Ben Afshar, who finished the tournament with 63 points, darted through a hole in Samoa’s defence after his hooker had carried with intent into contact to add their third in just the 15th minute.
Second-row Faauiga Tauese Tanumoa charged down Afshar’s clearance kick in the 18th minute to get defiant Samoa on the scoreboard. But, an Afa Moleli penalty on 26 minutes would be their final contribution to the points tally, despite looking dangerous in the scant moments they had control of the ball.
The Pacific Islanders’ rapidly lost cause was not helped when influential fly-half Moleli left the pitch on a stretcher midway through the second half with a suspected head injury.
In fact, the second half was all Scotland. Norrie forced his way over after another penalty kick to the corner early on. He barged his way over a second time a matter of minutes later.
And 18-year-old wing Kerr Johnston got his name on the scoreboard on his first start, darting over from another scrum that was piling forward. Second-row Jake Parkinson was an unstoppable force too close to the line soon after.
Then Tait went over for his second; Robinson scored a thoroughly deserved try for all his buzzing energy after coming on; Archie Falconer had hold of the ball as the forwards ran their lineout-to-tryline play one final time; and Matt Reid rounded off the scoring with the score of the match, as Samoa wilted.
USA 47-22 HONG KONG CHINA
A hat-trick of tries from back-rower Hayden McKay and a brace from winger Aaron Faison – on his first start – eased USA to a comfortable 47-22 win over Hong Kong China in the opening game of the final day at the U20 Trophy.
An early Solomon Williams try – the scrum-half benefiting from mimicking Antoine Dupont’s ‘minister of the interior’ role to pick up an inside ball from Rand Santos, who had quickstepped his way through the Hong Kong China defence – sent USA off on a perfect start en route to a seventh-place finish.
And Faison’s first minutes later, the ball shipped crisply and accurately wide to him, hinted that it would be a long day at the office for Hong Kong China.
But Hong Kong China’s pack had other ideas. They took on USA up front and had such an early advantage that they prompted tactical personnel changes on both sides of the US front row as early as the 25th minute.
Bringing on replacement props John Wilson and Connor Devos steadied USA’s scrum – but it was already too late to prevent Hong Kong China getting a score of their own, through hooker Dewi Simons.
It came from a well-worked training ground five-metre lineout move down the short side that allowed Simons to power over in the corner and was no less than Hong Kong China deserved as they enjoyed more than their fair share of territory and possession.
By now, though, USA Captain Hugh O’Kennedy, deputising for Dom Besag, who has been called up to the US Eagles’ side because of his impressive performances in Kenya, was starting to control proceedings from fly-half.
And McKay’s first try, after 35 minutes, was prologue to a dominant second half. Dylan Fortune had been held up over the line moments earlier when McKay charged over from 15 metres out as USA raced back the resulting goal-line dropout.
USA upped the ante early in the second half, replacement Wilson coming up with the ball at the back of a maul to extend their lead. Two minutes later, Faison went over for his second, picking up Corbin Smith’s perfect pass to finish off a crisp move.
There was plenty of time left for McKay to score his second and third – taking his overall tally for the tournament to seven – in typical openside style and end the match as a contest.
But though Hong Kong China were down, they were far from out. In the closing minutes, tries from 17-year-old Fritz Mahn, Charles Warren and a highlight-reel score from Max Threlkeld, after USA replacement Henry Duke had been shown a second yellow for a late tackle, ensured the scoreline was not deceptively one-sided.
*Credit: World Rugby