The future of French rugby looks to be in safe hands after Les Bleuets became the third team to win back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championship titles with a 24-23 defeat of Australia in the final in Rosario on Saturday.
France join New Zealand (2008-11) and England (2013-14) in defending the coveted title after denying Australia a first title in the same Argentine city where they were humbled 62-17 by New Zealand in the 2010 final.
This was never going to be such a one-sided affair and the second final to be decided by a single point – after England's 21-20 defeat of South Africa at Eden Park in 2014 – will live long in the memory with France and Australia producing 80 minutes of pulsating rugby that kept fans on the edge of their seats as it swung one way and then the other.
In fact, the lead changed hands no fewer than seven times before France fly-half Louis Carbonel kicked what proved to be the winning penalty with 15 minutes to go at the Racecourse Stadium.
Carbonel had been the star of France's first title success on home soil last year, kicking 23 points in their defeat of England in the final, and he pulled the strings in this title decider as Les Bleuets recovered from conceding the second fastest try in U20 Championship final history, Mark Nawaqanitawase diving over after only 49 seconds.
With victory France also became only the second team to reach the semi-finals as the best runner-up and go on to lift the distinctive trophy after England did so in winning their first title in 2013.
While France were celebrating again at the final whistle, there was dismay for Scotland after Fiji found the perfect time to score their most points ever in an U20 Championship match, scoring some scintillating tries in a 59-34 victory that guaranteed their place in the 2020 tournament and condemned the Scots to relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time.
Hooker Ewan Ashman had scored two tries in that painful defeat for Scotland to take his tally for the tournament to seven, becoming the first front-row to finish as the top try-scorer in U20 Championship history.
South Africa were the final team on the podium after beating hosts Argentina 41-16 to win bronze for the third tournament in a row and eighth time in total. The final score could have been closer, had Argentina not missed six kicks at goal before the Junior Springboks scored two tries in the final eight minutes to put the gloss on victory at the Racecourse Stadium.
Three-time champions England came out on top in a 10-try fifth place play-off against Wales to triumph 45-26, while New Zealand finished their campaign with a 40-17 victory over Ireland to claim seventh place – their lowest ranking in the 12-year history of the U20 Championship. Italy, meanwhile, finished with a flourish by scoring 22 unanswered points to beat Georgia 29-17 to claim ninth place.
FINAL: AUSTRALIA 23-24 FRANCE
France became the first team to win back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championship titles since England achieved the feat in 2013-14 after another influential performance from Louis Carbonel.
The star of the show in last year’s final against England, the fly-half once again showed he is the man for the big occasion in kicking 14 points in a title decider that swung one way and then the other.
By contrast, Australia left 10 points out there by failing to convert both of their first-half tries and two second-half penalties. In a game where the lead exchanged hands on no less than seven occasions and with never more than five points between the sides, those misses proved crucial to the overall outcome.
It was heart-breaking for Australia and their captain Fraser McReight, who produced another breakdown masterclass, as they missed out on the title for the second time at the final hurdle in Argentina having also been beaten by New Zealand in 2010.
This was an altogether different team to the one that had 62 points put on them by New Zealand that day, and it only took them 49 seconds to show Les Bleuets their intent.
Playing under blue skies and in perfect conditions, Australia scored the second fastest final try in the tournament’s history when winger Mark Nawaqanitawase got on the end of Isaac Lucas’ scything break downfield.
France dusted themselves down and an aggressive counter ruck won them quick turnover possession on the Australia 22. Leo Coly’s show-and-go was bought by the Junior Wallabies’ defence and hooker Theo Lachaud blasted his way through two tackles after taking the scrum-half’s inside ball at pace.
Carbonel converted and then added a penalty on 17 minutes after Australia strayed offside at the breakdown. His opposite number Will Harrison responded in kind a few minutes later to reduce the gap to 10-8 before centre Semisi Tupou then showed all the class that has seen him appear in three U20 Championships with a midfield break that led to hooker Lachlan Lonergan scoring his fourth try of the tournament.
Neither side was able to stay on top for long, as the final continued to be played at a high intensity, and France hit back for a second time with tight-head prop Alex Burin peeling off a maul to score their second try. Carbonel’s conversion hit the upright but he made no mistake with a penalty on the stroke of half-time to give his side an 18-13 interval lead.
A strong start to the second half was needed from Australia and only some desperate defence kept the Junior Wallabies at bay, Jordan Joseph and Coly getting underneath Harrison and preventing him from grounding the ball as the fly-half crossed the line. Joseph, the 2018 Player of the Tournament, made another crucial intervention a minute later when he stripped the ball from Harry Wilson’s grasp as the flanker threatened to score from a few metres out.
The ball carrying continued to be relentless from the Junior Wallabies, though, and Wilson was not to be denied a second time as he wriggled his way over despite the attentions of several tacklers, Harrison converting for a 20-18 lead.
With the momentum and the breeze behind them, Australia continued to pour forward, but three points went begging when Harrison put another kick wide on 53 minutes. A busting run from Joseph and a break by Matthis Lebel lifted France and Carbonel punished Australia from the tee when they strayed offside.
The nip-and-tuck nature of the game continued and no sooner had France re-taken the lead, Harrison reclaimed it for Australia with his third kick of the match as the hour-mark approached. Back came France and when their increasingly dominant scrum won another penalty, up stepped the ever-dependable Carbonel to bisect the posts.
Michael McDonald took over the kicking duties for Australia but his first effort at goal on 67 minutes went the same way as three of Harrison’s kicks, just wide.
McReight then came close to getting the try his efforts deserved when he was narrowly beaten in a foot race by opposing captain Arthur Vincent as they chased down Wilson’s well-weighted kick into the in-goal area.
For the remainder of the match, though, France had the upper hand and despite having to defend for over two minutes of continuous play at the death, they eventually forced a handling error from Australia who had to concede defeat by the slenderest of margins.
Australia captain Fraser McReight said: “The scoreboard shows how close the match was. It was back-and-forth and just point after point from each team. Credit to France, they played really well but I am super gutted for my team. We really lifted the tempo in the second half but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to get the job done.”
France captain Arthur Vincent said: “It is an unbelievable feeling, I am very, very happy and proud of this team. Thanks to all the team and the staff and the support we had.”
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: ARGENTINA 16-41 SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa ran in five tries to seal a third successive U20 Championship bronze medal with a 41-16 defeat of Argentina in Rosario.
Los Pumitas beat the Junior Springboks in their only previous meeting in a third place play-off in 2016, but they fell behind within three minutes as Sanele Nohamba snuck over from close range, the scrum-half getting up to convert his try.
The hosts grew into the game as the half wore on and fly-half Joaquin de la Vega Mendia got his side on the scoreboard from the kicking tee in the 19th minute, having missed an earlier effort.
Mateo Carreras thought he had put Argentina in front as he crossed the try-line soon after, but the pass to him from Ignacio Mendy had drifted forward.
The Junior Springboks seized on the let-off. Nohamba stretched their lead with a 26th-minute penalty before Rikus Pretorius, having powered through several attempted tackles, offloaded to Thaakir Abrahams to score a second South African try.
It gave them a commanding 17-3 half-time lead but Los Pumitas stormed back after the break, scoring two tries in less than five minutes through De la Vega Mendia and Carreras – but missed kicks again proved costly.
De la Vega Mendia converted neither of those tries – both from presentable positions – and sliced a penalty attempt wide before Geronimo Prisciantelli assumed kicking duties and struck the upright.
Nicolas Roger came off the bench to finally narrow the deficit with three points but South Africa took the game away from the hosts in the final quarter with converted tries from Abrahams, JJ van der Mescht and Pretorius, as well as a David Coetzer drop goal – the first of the tournament.
South Africa captain Phendulani Buthelezi said: “We always wanted to be very physical against Argentina and I think at times today we did that. The guys put it together at the end and we finished really well.”
Argentina full-back Ignacio Mendy said: “We are really disappointed, we wanted to get the bronze medal. They were very effective, they scored when they had to. We didn’t do that.”
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ENGLAND 45-26 WALES
Josh Hodge took his personal tally to 63 points as England secured fifth place with a 45-26 defeat of Wales at the Racecourse Stadium.
Wales had never beaten England in three previous U20 Championship meetings, and did not look like registering a maiden win here following a frantic opening 15 minutes in which Steve Bates’ side built a 21-0 lead.
Hodge went into match-day five as the tournament’s leading scorer, and brought up his half century within six minutes as he chased his own chip, beating Ioan Davies to the bouncing ball to dot down a try he then converted. The England winger had been gifted possession by an errant Ryan Conbeer pass and another Welsh mistake, this time a crooked lineout throw on their own 22, invited the pressure from which Will Capon powered over soon after.
And with less than a quarter of an hour gone England went three scores in front – and through the 2,000-point barrier – as another flowing counter-attack ended with a deliberate knock-on from Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler that resulted in a yellow card and penalty try.
Wales held England out during the centre’s absence, but conceded again on the stroke of half-time as prop Joe Heyes burrowed over from close range, Hodge’s conversion making the score 28-0 at the break.
Tries from Jac Morgan and captain Dewi Lake in the opening 10 minutes of the second half gave Wales hope of an unlikely comeback. But it evaporated almost immediately after Lake had touched down, as Cai Evans was charged down by Luke James from the restart and captain Fraser Dingwall gobbled up the loose ball to score.
Ed Scragg again reduced the arrears with a third Wales try, from another lineout drive, but Hodge added a penalty to further sap their momentum. Ted Hill then scored in the left corner to put the seal on England’s victory before Rio Dyer provided some late consolation for the Welsh.
England captain Fraser Dingwall said: “It’s important to look back on this tournament and say we have grown. To kick on and get four wins out of five, I think that is a good show.”
Wales captain Dewi Lake said: “I spoke about it before the game we had to come out firing. Any time you go 21 points down to team as good as England, and how clinical they are, it’s hard to come back.”
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND 17-40 NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand held off a spirited Ireland comeback to sign off a disappointing campaign with a hard-earned win at Club Old Resian.
Already resigned to finishing in their lowest-ever position in the U20 Championship, New Zealand were determined to bow out on a high and they raced into a 19-0 lead after just 14 minutes.
Etene Nanai-Seturo bagged an early brace, his tries coming either side of a 25-metre special from prop Oliver Norris. New Zealand then became the first team in U20 Championship history to 2,500 points when Leicester Fainga’anuku muscled his way over from close range in the 21st minute.
But the remainder of the half was all about Ireland and after Cormac Foley twice went close, prop Josh Wycherley picked up at the base of a ruck and dotted down to make it 26-5 at the break.
New Zealand started the second half down to 14 men after losing stand-in captain Billy Proctor to the sin-bin on the stroke of half-time and Ireland punished them to the tune of 10 points.
Hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin was the first to cross before Ryan Baird scored a contender for try of the tournament. Showing a real turn of pace down the left flank, Baird outstripped the defensive cover before linking up with Craig Casey. The scrum-half was stopped a metre short but had the presence of mind to pop the ball up to Baird who strolled over to the delight of the Irish contingent in the crowd.
Ireland were firmly in the ascendency in every respect apart from the scoreboard, a run of 17 unanswered points having given them real self-belief.
However, a counter-attack from full-back Cole Forbes sparked New Zealand back into life and Tamaiti Williams carried four defenders over the line with him for their fifth try before hooker Shilo Klein got another one for the forwards. A yellow card to Williams saw New Zealand reduced to 14 men again but their 23-point cushion remained intact.
New Zealand second-row Tupou Va’ai said: “Credit to the boys, they dug deep. We didn’t have a good tournament, but we knew we needed to finish strong.”
Ireland captain Charlie Ryan said: “We’re disappointed with that last game. We just didn’t show up in that first half, but I’m really proud of the way the lads dug in and gave it their all.”
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ITALY 29-17 GEORGIA
Italy scored 22 unanswered points to end the tournament on a high, beating Georgia 29-17 to claim ninth place.
Given no team had amassed fewer points (62) or tries (eight) than Georgia in this year’s tournament it was perhaps no surprise that the first half was a cagey, low-scoring affair.
Italy broke the deadlock in what was a forward-dominated contest as prop Matteo Drudi profited from a powerful lineout drive to score a 12th-minute try that was converted by Paolo Garbisi.
The Junior Lelos’ cause was not helped in the 34th minute when Irakli Simsive was shown a yellow card – Georgia’s first of the tournament – for a dangerous tackle on Italian second-row Nicolae-Cristian Stoian.
Garbisi missed the opportunity to stretch his side’s lead from the resulting penalty, however, and that allowed his opposite number Tedo Abzhandadze to cut it to four points from the kicking tee on the stroke of half-time.
And having averaged two tries a match throughout the tournament, the Junior Lelos struck twice within four second-half minutes to take control. First Demur Tapladze finished a fine team move before Mikheil Alania picked off an Ange Capuozzo pass to help give his side a 10-point cushion.
But Italy were determined not to succumb to a second successive U20 Championship loss to Georgia and scored three tries in the final 20 minutes, through Federico Mori, Jacopo Trulla and Capuozzo, two of which were converted by Garbisi – who also kicked a penalty – to make sure of ninth place.
Italy captain Davide Ruggeri said: “I’m very happy, this is an honour for me to play with my guys, play with my brothers. This is not a team, this is my family.”
Georgia captain Tedo Abzhandadze said: “We are not happy with this result but we [have] stayed here for four years, so we are happy about that. This is a great tournament for growing yourself. I’m happy because I played in this three times.”
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: SCOTLAND 34-59 FIJI
With the Rosario sun on their backs, Fiji produced a brilliant display of attacking rugby to retain their place in the World Rugby U20 Championship at Scotland’s expense.
Scotland fought back valiantly after conceding 38 first-half points, but they were left with too much to do and become the first Home Nation to suffer relegation from the tournament.
All five of Fiji’s tries before the break were collector’s items in their own right, centre Isaac Ratumaitavuki getting the first on four minutes after great hands from Osea Natoga and Osea Waqa.
Stung into action Scotland scored next, Ross Thompson slotting a penalty before Jack Blain cut back inside the defensive cover, after play had gone from one touchline to another. The lead did not last long though, as centre Veresa Tuqovu collected a basketball-style offload from flanker Yabaki Seeto to score in the corner.
Again, Scotland responded, full-back Matt Davidson hitting the line at pace to power over after the forwards employed their tried and tested maul to suck in defenders, Thompson converting to bring his side to within two points of the Fijians.
That was near as they got, though, as Fiji turned on the style to score three brilliant tries in the space of seven minutes. If Waqa’s slaloming run to the line was all about individual brilliance, Fiji’s fourth try was a real team effort. Nine different players got their hands on the ball before ever-dangerous wing Kaminieli Rasaku finished off a brilliant move which started on the edge of their own 22.
Fiji were on fire at this stage and, straight from the restart, they scored again, second-row Etonia Waqa plucking the ball out of the air before feeding Natoga, who chipped over the defence and effortlessly re-gathered to slide over on the stroke of half-time. With Muntz putting an early penalty miss behind him and knocking over his fifth consecutive kick, Fiji went into the break 38-15 up.
Scotland knew their future at this level was hanging by a thread and they came out firing. Shortly after Roan Frostwick lost control over the line, hooker Ewan Ashman muscled his way over from close range for his sixth try of the tournament.
Having suffered heartbreak at the death against Georgia on Monday, Fiji were in no mood for a repeat and Waqa’s second, after another brilliant offload from his second-row namesake, got them going again.
Blain’s second from Thompson’s inch-perfect cross-field kick was just reward for Scottish pressure in the 64th minute. Fiji’s high penalty count was becoming a problem and when Ashman went over again from the back of a maul, and Thompson converted, Scotland had a glimmer of hope with the score at 45-34 to Fiji with 12 minutes remaining.
Poor game-management cost Fiji dearly in the ninth-place semi-final against Georgia but, on this occasion, they were able to ride out the storm and Anasa Qaranivalu’s converted try finally secured the win before fellow replacement Ilaisa Droasese raced home from 60 metres to crown a marvellous display.
Scotland captain Connor Boyle said: “This game was the most important game of some of our lives. Scotland had never been relegated before, but we weren’t on the money. Credit to Fiji, they played their hearts out but it’s very disappointing for us.”
Fiji captain Tevita Ikanivere said: “It means a lot. We came out with a bang and did it for the boys last year who brought us up and for our brothers who’ll be here next year.”