When referee James Doleman blew his whistle to confirm France as back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championship winners in Rosario in June 2019, no one could have envisaged it would be four years before Les Bleuets could defend their title.

However, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is exactly what has transpired, and France will arrive on South Africa’s Western Cape later this month determined to win a third U20 Championship title in a row.

Louis Carbonel, pivotal as France won the 2018 tournament on home soil and one of several players who have since graduated to senior test rugby, kicked his country to victory in Argentina. His 14 points in the final proved crucial in a nerve-wracking 24-23 defeat of Australia at the Racecourse Stadium.

As the countdown to the return of the U20 Championship continues, we recap the story of a tournament that gave fans around the globe a first glimpse of the likes of Harry Wilson, Ange Capuozzo, Jac Morgan, Ethan Dumortier and Marcos Moneta.

England, New Zealand fall at first hurdle

The 2019 edition in Argentina started with a bang on 4 June as Australia and South Africa kicked off the tournament with victories against Italy and Scotland respectively.

Georgia then scored their first ever try against New Zealand at U20 level, to draw within six points of the Junior All Blacks at 19-13 early in the second half but went on to concede 26 unanswered points to lose 45-13.

Meanwhile, Cai Evans was the hero as Wales beat hosts Argentina 30-25 and there was an opening victory for 2019 U20 Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland, who inflicted a first pool-stage defeat on England since 2015.

A Jordan Joseph hat-trick helped defending champions France to a 36-20 defeat of Fiji in a match that was nip and tuck until the final 25 minutes.

Four days later, Carbonel scored 17 points to help Les Bleuets to a 32-13 victory against Wales that kept them top of Pool A. Los Pumitas reignited their title hopes with a bonus-point defeat of Fiji.

In Pool B, Australia strengthened their grip on first place with a 45-17 win over Ireland, while England were thankful for a late Josh Hodge penalty as they won their first match of the campaign, beating Italy by the narrowest of margins, 24-23.

With four teams already on 10 points by the end of match-day two, though, the four-point victory was not enough to maintain the three-time winners’ hopes of reaching the semi-finals and ensured England would not contest the final for the first time since 2012.

Pool C, meanwhile, became a shootout between South Africa and New Zealand as the former U20 Championship winners enjoyed comfortable wins on match-day two, against Georgia and Scotland respectively.

Those results set up the final round perfectly, and in Rosario, two late penalties from replacement scrum-half Sanele Nohamba helped confirm a 25-17 victory for the Junior Springboks and crucially denied their opponents a losing bonus-point.

The result ensured New Zealand failed to qualify for the semi-finals for only the second time in tournament history. Earlier on day three, Tedo Abzhandadze scored 12 points to help Georgia to a 17-12 win against Scotland.

In Pool B, Ireland beat Italy 38-14 but were denied top spot, and a place in the semi-finals, as Australia picked up a try-scoring bonus-point in their 56-33 defeat to England, who finished third despite their eight-try victory.

Wales rounded off their pool-stage campaign with a 44-28 win against Fiji in Santa Fe, but the drama in Pool A was reserved for Rosario. Having lost Sacha Zegueur to an 11th-minute red card, France lost 47-26 to the hosts, however, Matthis Lebel’s late try gave Les Bleuets the bonus point they needed to go through to the semi-finals as the best runner-up.

France, Australia set up final

It was an opportunity the defending champions grasped with both hands. Joseph scored his fifth try of the tournament and Carbonel kicked five penalties to hand France a 20-7 victory against the previously unbeaten South Africa.

Australia would provide the opposition in the final after they scored 17 unanswered points despite playing with 14 men in the second half of their semi-final against Argentina.

The hosts had turned round within four points of their opponents and with a player advantage after Michael McDonald was shown a second yellow card, and the subsequent red, and a penalty try was awarded.

However, it was Australia who took control after the break and tries from Lachlan Lonergan and Ben Donaldson helped to confirm a 34-13 win.

Earlier on match-day four, Scotland and Fiji set up a relegation play-off after they lost their ninth-place semi-finals against Italy and Georgia respectively.

Wales were thankful to a 79th-minute Cai Evans penalty, and an even later miss by Fergus Burke, as they secured an 8-7 victory against New Zealand that condemned the Junior All Blacks to their worst ever finish at an U20 Championship.

A Tom Willis try in the final play of their fifth-place semi-final against Ireland, meanwhile, gave England a 30-23 win and revenge for their pool-stage defeat.

Les Bleuets secure title

France had relied heavily on the boot of Carbonel to get to the final – 58 per cent of their points in Argentina came via tries, the fourth lowest proportion in the competition – and the fly-half played a prominent role in the showpiece match.

Although Australia outscored the defending champions three to two in terms of tries, two second-half Carbonel penalties, his third and fourth of the match, helped Les Bleuets squeeze home, winning 24-23.

By contrast, Will Harrison and Michael McDonald both missed three-pointers in the final half an hour that would have sent the title to Australia for the first time.

Kicking also had a bearing on the bronze final as Argentina saw a potential 19 points evaporate through a combination of missed conversions, penalties and a Nicolás Roger drop goal attempt.

Roger’s attempt came after David Coetzer had landed a drop goal for South Africa, and the Junior Springboks were successful with all six of their kicks at goal, including five conversions, as they ran out 41-16 winners.

It was England’s Hodge who finished as the tournament’s top-scorer, though, and 18 of his 63 points arrived in the fifth-place play-off as his side beat Wales 45-26.

New Zealand and Italy, meanwhile, ended their campaigns on a winning note by beating Ireland and Georgia respectively to finish seventh and ninth.

And Fiji ran in eight tries to condemn Scotland to a 59-34 defeat and relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time.