Five takeaways from day one of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023
We pick out some of the main talking points and trends from an enthralling first round as the world’s best young rugby players served up a feast of rugby.
The meeting between defending champions France and New Zealand, the most successful team in World Rugby U20 Championship history, will headline the highly anticipated second day of this year’s tournament in South Africa.
France, winners of the two most recent U20 Championships in 2018 and 2019, currently lead Pool A following a commanding 75-12 win against Japan on Saturday.
Les Bleuets are ahead of New Zealand on points difference alone, though, after they emerged with all five match points despite being pushed all the way in their opener by Wales before winning 27-26.
France coach Sébastien Calvet has made four changes to the starting line-up that beat Japan, as prop Zaccharie Affane, second-row Posolo Tuilagi, flanker Oscar Jegou and winger Théo Attissogbe come in.
Calvet has also opted for a six-two split on the replacements’ bench, a decision he feels has been vindicated by the fact that rain is predicted in Paarl on Thursday.
“New Zealand are a team we need to press, especially on the basics. This was obvious before the weather forecast, which confirmed our choice,” he said ahead of the match, which will kick-off at 13:30 local time (GMT+2).
“The squad includes sevens players, notably [replacement Andy] Timo, a back-row player who can more than fill in as a three-quarter wing.”
New Zealand have made three personnel changes for Thursday’s crucial match, as Tom Allen, Malachi Wrampling and Leo Gordon are handed starts. Peter Lakai, meanwhile, switches from number eight to openside flanker.
Despite New Zealand’s struggles against Wales, Calvet is under no illusions about the size of the task facing France at the Paarl Gymnasium Stadium.
“We know full well that this is a team that knows how to bounce back from rather average performances,” Calvet added. “We're expecting a very big game.”
Wales will hope to record their first victory of the tournament as they take on Japan in the other match in Pool A on Thursday, which kicks off at 14:00 local time at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch.
Coach Mark Jones has made two changes, both in the pack, for the match against Japan, as prop Louis Fletcher and second-row Evan Hill are selected.
His Japan counterpart Rob Penney has made eight changes to his match-day squad as he attempts to guide the team to what would be a famous win.
Hosts South Africa head into round two looking for a performance against Italy, having been pushed all the way by Georgia in their opening 33-23 win.
The Junior Springboks are a point behind Pool C leaders Argentina heading into Thursday and coach Bafana Nhleko has reacted by naming five uncapped players in his starting line-up.
In total, Nhleko has made 10 changes to his team, which is the same number of players Italy coach Massimo Brunello has drafted in to his Azzurrini side following their 43-15 defeat to Los Pumitas.
Thursday’s encounter at Paarl Gymnasium Stadium (kick-off 16:00 local time) will be the third time the nations have met at the U20 Championship, with South Africa winning each of those matches.
“The choices we made were calibrated by evaluating the length of the tournament and the closeness between one match and another,” Brunello said.
“A careful management of playing time is absolutely important, as it is the possibility of giving space to those players who normally have less. Ours is a balanced group, and as far as we're concerned, this is a strong XV, capable of facing such a team as South Africa, who showed a high potential against Georgia.”
Argentina take on Georgia at Danie Craven Stadium at 16:30 local time, in the second match in Pool C, and Los Pumitas coach Álvaro Galindo has not rested on his laurels.
He has made five personnel and two positional changes to his starting line-up as Argentina attempt to take a step towards the semi-finals, one enforced with Benjamín Elizalde ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.
The teams have met twice previously at the U20 Championship – both during the 2017 tournament in Tbilisi. Argentina won the first 37-26 but hosts Georgia edged home 26-25 in their ninth-place semi-final.
Argentina enjoyed a big 82-10 win in the teams’ most recent meeting at this level, during the U20 International Series 2021, a match that was also played in Stellenbosch.
Junior Lelos coach Lado Kilasonia has made five changes to his starting line-up for Thursday’s match, as Nika Babunashvili, Irakli Aptsiauri and Giorgi Gergedava come into the pack and Luka Khorbaladze and Luka Tsirekidze are drafted into the back three.
Australia can take a large stride towards the semi-finals with victory against Ireland at Paarl Gymnasium at 11:00 local time.
The Junior Wallabies won their Pool B opener against Fiji 46-37 on Saturday but needed two tries in the final 15 minutes to do so.
Australia have a good record against Ireland at the U20 Championship, having won their two most recent matches against the reigning U20 Six Nations champions, including a 45-17 pool-stage victory four years ago.
Junior Wallabies coach Nathan Grey has rung the changes for the encounter with Ireland, drafting in 10 players, including captain Teddy Wilson at scrum-half.
“We certainly have a healthy respect for Ireland, they’ve been dominant in the Six Nations for the last couple of seasons,” Grey said.
“We’re very aware of the threats they pose – there’s a few of them. We’re also very conscious of how we want to play, and very comfortable with how we want to play and back ourselves in applying pressure to them, in our way.”
Despite outscoring their opponents six tries to four, Ireland got their Pool B campaign underway with a 34-34 draw with England on Saturday – only the second in a pool match in U20 Championship history.
Ireland coach Richie Murphy has subsequently made four changes to the team that will face the Junior Wallabies in Paarl.
The final match of match-day two (kick-off 19:00 local time) pits England against Fiji with both teams in need of a victory to have any hope of reaching the semi-finals.
England coach Mark Mapletoft has rolled the dice for the match at Danie Craven Stadium, with only two players – Finn Carnduff, who assumes the captaincy, and Connor Slevin – retaining their place in a starting line-up boasting five debutants.
“We were really pleased with the things the team did well in our game against Ireland on Saturday, particularly with how we built upon our performances from the Six Nations,” Mapletoft said.
“We’ve taken learnings on board from the match and have now shifted our attention to Fiji, who gave the Australians a real crack in their tournament opener.
“With only a five-day turnaround between fixtures, our players have prioritised their recovery well. We’ve named a number of debutants for Thursday’s match, so congratulations to those five lads and all others selected.”
Fiji’s only change comes in the back-three where Manieta Navonovono is handed the number 11 jersey and Bronson Lee shifts to the right wing.
Matches will be live streamed in each match centre on the World Rugby website if not aired by the following broadcasters: ESPN, Fancode, Georgia Public Broadcaster, ITV, L'Equipe, NBC, S4C, Sky NZ, Stan/Nine, Supersport, Virgin.