Defending champions France will meet 2016 runners-up Ireland in the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 final at Athlone Stadium after coming out on top of two entertaining semi-finals in Cape Town on Sunday.
U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners Ireland were first to book their place in a second title decider after a 31-12 defeat of hosts South Africa, before France recovered from an early 17-0 deficit to eventually pull clear of three-time winners England in the second half to triumph 52-31 in a high-intensity encounter.
It was the highest-scoring semi-final in U20 Championship history, the 83 points easily beating the 65 scored in France's loss to New Zealand in 2017.
The ninth-place semi-finals had earlier got play underway on day four with Fiji claiming their first victory of the tournament, 41-26 against Italy at Paarl Gymnasium.
The win ensures that Fiji will be playing in the U20 Championship next year, but Italy now face another relegation battle on the final day to avoid relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2024.
Italy will face Japan on Friday, who lost 45-20 to Argentina in Paarl in the 400th match in U20 Championship history. Los Pumitas are also assured of their place in the 2024 edition and will now play Fiji for ninth place.
Wales earned a hard-fought 40-21 victory against Georgia in the final match in Paarl. Mark Jones' side will now face Australia for fifth place after the Junior Wallabies came out on top of an entertaining fifth-place semi-final battle with six-time champions New Zealand 44-35.
The 11th place play-off will kick-off the final day of play at 12:00 local time (GMT+2) on Friday at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, which will also host the ninth place play-off between Fiji and Argentina at 14:30 as well as the seventh place decider between New Zealand and Georgia at 17:00.
Wales and Australia's battle for fifth place gets play underway at Athlone Stadium at 14:00 on Friday, followed by the third place play-off between South Africa and England at 16:30 with the final between Ireland and France bringing down the curtain on the tournament at 19:00.
SEMI-FINAL: FRANCE 52-31 ENGLAND
France will bid for a third consecutive title on the day of the country’s Fête Nationale after coming back from 17-0 down in the first 17 minutes to score seven tries in a fast and furious semi-final against England.
Mark Mapletoft’s side got off to the perfect start, running in two tries in two first-quarter minutes as the 2018 and 2019 champions struggled to get their game going.
Fly-half Louie Johnson opened England’s account with an early penalty before full-back Sam Harris raced into the corner after latching on to an inside pass from captain Lewis Chessum and Alex Wills, a late change coming into the starting line-up, handed off Théo Attissogbé to add a second in the same area a minute later.
The first half was played at a ridiculous pace. Just two minutes later France roared back with a try of their own through Mathis Ferté, who flirted with touch as he danced into the corner.
Les Bleuets had already had one try ruled out for a forward pass, and came close to scoring another five minutes after Ferté had kickstarted their game, but captain Lenni Nouchi knocked on as he tried to go over the top of a ruck from a metre out.
But Paul Costes was not to be denied a minute later, skirting under the posts after England had failed to clear their lines to pull France back to within three.
Still the high-intensity action continued. Chandler Cunningham-South crashed over from a five-metre lineout to extend England’s lead to 10 points once as the first-half drew to a close.
However, France were not to be denied in the second period, opening the scoring with a penalty try seven minutes in. Replacement England second-row Finn Carnduff was yellow-carded for collapsing a French maul as it rumbled towards the line. Les Bleuets had again been denied moments previously, held up over the line on penalty advantage.
Nouchi made amends for missing out on a score in the first half, crashing over from close range as Les Bleuets made the most of their numerical advantage and took the lead for the first time in the match.
And Mastercard Player of the Match Mark Gazzotti galloped over three minutes later – with England down to 14 for a few more seconds – to extend France’s recently gained lead to 11 with just over half an hour to play.
Neither side could maintain the high pace they had set, and as the sides tired, spaces started opening up. France back-row Oscar Jegou was the first to benefit in the 65th minute, after Nouchi had punched through England’s line.
With six minutes left on the clock, Hugo Reus spun his way over the line, after the French scrum had won the ball against the head.
There was time enough at the end of a non-stop encounter for England’s Cassius Cleaves to go over, and for Jegou to have his second – France’s third – denied for a foot in touch in the lead-in before Reus rounded off a perfect night with the boot with a penalty on the hooter.
SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND 31-12 SOUTH AFRICA
Two tries from winger James Nicholson earned U20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winners Ireland a semi-final win over hosts South Africa at Athlone Sports Stadium.
Both Nicholson’s touchdowns were made possible by smart cross-field kicks from Sam Prendergast, as consistent and organised Ireland eased into next week’s final after weathering an early South African storm.
Until his first, on 37 minutes, Ireland had had to dig deep defensively as South Africa, roared on by the home crowd, played all the early rugby.
However, for all their territory and possession – the Junior Springboks spent 64 per cent of the first period in Irish territory, and broke into their 22 time and again – they could not make their early advantage count as the solid Irish defence soaked up the pressure.
And Ireland took advantage when Junior Springboks’ back-row Jannes Potgieter, on as an injury replacement for Ghudian van Reenan, was yellow-carded for dangerous play. In the 37th minute, on just their second visit to South Africa’s 22, Prendergast made the most of penalty advantage to nudge a cross-field kick into the arms of Nicholson, who had space and time to cross the try-line.
His second on the hour followed a similar pattern. The hard-working Brian Gleeson carried hard over the gain-line, replacement centre Sam Berman darted through a gap and – with a penalty advantage – the perennially calm Prendergast flicked the ball off his boot for Nicholson to run for the line.
Having been kept scoreless in the opening period, South Africa had roared into the second half, Imad Khan scoring under the posts after Reagan Izaks – on for Hakeem Kunene at the start of the second half – beat Ireland’s defensive line with just five minutes gone.
Parity, however, lasted no time as Mastercard Player of the Match Gleeson steam-rollered his way to the try-line from a lineout. Prendergast converted to restore the U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners’ seven-point advantage.
The pressure of apparently unbreakable Irish cohesion was beginning to tell. Five minutes after Nicholson’s second extended their lead, Berman broke through to score their fourth.
More forward pressure – Ireland were marching forward in the scrum – gave Prendergast a shot at goal after 72 minutes. He maintained a perfect match with the boot, adding a penalty to his four conversions.
Five minutes from time, South Africa finally broke through again, Coetzee le Roux crashing over from short-range for the final, consolatory score.
FIFTH-PLACE SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 35-44 AUSTRALIA
Australia held their nerve and their discipline to book a place in the fifth-place play-off in a pulsating 12-try trans-Tasman contest at Athlone Sports Stadium.
New Zealand had to play the last 67 minutes with 14 men after second-row Tom Allen had his initial yellow card upgraded to red by the TMO bunker for a dangerous clear-out on Lachlan Hooper.
The six-time champions were further handicapped by twice going down to 13 men when blindside flanker Malachi Wrampling and then replacement centre Xavi Taele were sent to the sin-bin.
But it was not until captain Teddy Wilson broke away to score his side’s seventh try two minutes from time that Australia finally broke New Zealand’s stubborn resistance.
New Zealand were 12 points clear at one stage but Ryan’s brace and a well-worked try from left-wing Ronan Leahy eventually wore them down.
Heavy rain immediately before kick-off made conditions difficult yet both teams produced some superb handling rugby with New Zealand opening the scoring with a third-minute try from winger Macca Springer.
Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, who shifted from full-back to fly-half in a late change, responded with a penalty just before Allen departed. Australia hooker Max Craig drove over after a break from Leahy which was nullified by one from Wrampling who hit the line at pace.
But Wrampling’s yellow card left New Zealand two forwards down and Australia capitalised with Craig going over from a lineout drive and centre Henry O’Donnell muscling his way through a weakened defence.
New Zealand’s response was a brilliantly-worked second try from Wrampling after tight-head prop Siale Laukai had set him up by bursting through two tackles and slipping a perfectly-timed pass.
Fly-half Taha Kemara added a drop goal in first-half stoppage time and when hooker Jack Taylor went over from a lineout early in the second period, New Zealand sensed an unlikely victory.
But a double-strike from Ryan then Leahy pulled Australia level and although wing Caleb Tangitau edged New Zealand back in front, Australia expertly closed out the game.
When New Zealand lost possession near their 22, Ryan picked up and raced clear with McLaughlin-Phillips adding an important conversion from the touchline before Wilson sealed the win.
FIFTH-PLACE SEMI-FINAL: GEORGIA 21-40 WALES
Georgia had been denied a place in the semi-finals only by the head-to-head rule after finishing level on points with South Africa, but they came into their fifth-place semi-final against Wales full of confidence.
The Junior Lelos settled the quickest of the teams at Paarl Gymnasium and built a 6-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, thanks to two Petre Khutsishvili penalties.
The difference of the two sides’ approach was highlighted as Wales kicked two penalties to the corner rather than give Daniel Edwards a shot at goal. Neither came to anything due to infringements at the subsequent lineouts.
However, after Tornike Kakhoidze was shown a yellow card in the 36th minute for persistent Georgian infringements, Wales got their lineout working and hooker Lewis Lloyd took advantage of a powerful drive to score the opening try of the match.
Edwards added the touchline conversion to edge his side in front, but there was still time for Georgia to launch an attack on the Welsh line.
Wales had given a penalty away after Lewis had dotted down and Georgia took advantage to put themselves in position to strike. Their set-piece drive rumbled over the try-line but was held up and although they were awarded a penalty, Tamaz Tchamiashvili threw long at the subsequent lineout, allowing the Welsh to clear.
Having had to wait until the end of the first half for the opening try of the match, four arrived within 15 minutes of the restart as Wales took control of the contest.
Louie Hennessey charged onto a pass from centre partner Joe Westwood, following a lineout move, to score the first with just over two minutes of the second half played.
Georgia hit back soon after, replacement loose-head prop Giorgi Mamaiashvili emerging with the ball following a powerful lineout drive that started on the Welsh 22.
But the Junior Lelos only had themselves to blame as Hennessey and Harri Houston went over twice more to help Wales build a 15-point lead, both tries coming from errant Georgian passes.
Hennessey’s 65th-minute yellow card gave Georgia hope, which they grasped onto almost immediately, as hooker Tamaz Tchamiashvili dotted down following another lineout drive.
That was as close to Wales as they got, however. While still down to 14, and following a missed drop-goal attempt from Mastercard Player of the Match Edwards, replacement Lucas De La Rua came up with a fifth Welsh try following a driving maul.
And there was still time for both teams to cross the whitewash, Kakhoidze going over following a flowing Georgian move before Westwood put the seal on Wales’ victory with their sixth try of the match.
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ITALY 26-41 FIJI
Fiji produced a performance of skill and flair to nullify Italy’s heavy pack in the opening ninth-place semi-final at Paarl Gymnasium and confirm their place in next year's U20 Championship.
Having struggled in set-piece play in their three matches in Pool B, Fiji took the opportunity to show what they could do with a reasonable supply of possession by running in five tries.
It was a contrast of styles as Italy used their dominant scrum as the platform to score their four tries but their lineout malfunctioned, they turned over too much possession in attack and also conceded penalties that allowed Fiji to relieve the pressure.
Italy were 15 points down 10 minutes into the second half but rallied to reduce the deficit to a point with two tries in three minutes.
But missed tackles proved costly which allowed Fiji’s influential fly-half Isaiah Ravula to send blindside flanker Sakenasa Nalasi over then for centre Paterisio Fiunau to slice through a static defence on a strike run from a lineout.
Ravula kicked 16 points off the tee but his astute tactical kicking also proved decisive in a frenetic contest on a heavy pitch.
Italy twice led in the first half with tight-head prop Marcos Francesco Gallorini having the distinction of scoring the 100th try of this year’s tournament when he drove over early on. Fiji responded through Mastercard Player of the Match, second-row Mesake Vocevoce, with Ravula adding the conversion followed by a well-struck penalty.
Italy regained the lead when Giovanni Quattrini, their captain and hooker, rumbled over from another lineout drive but Fiji were always dangerous with ball in hand. They reclaimed the lead on the half-hour with a cleverly-worked short-side move that gave full-back Isikeli Basiyalo an untroubled run to the line.
Ravula added a difficult conversion and then created Fiji’s next try with an accurate chip that was snaffled by wing Sireli Masiwini who stepped out of a tackle and dotted down.
A second-half penalty from Ravula stretched the lead before Italy brought on all their forward replacements and gained early rewards when second-row Jacopo Botturi and replacement hooker Nicholas Gasperini were shunted over.
But Fiji played the more composed rugby when it mattered with Ravula ensuring Italy’s forwards were denied further attacking opportunities.
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ARGENTINA 45-20 JAPAN
Japan have made a habit of starting matches quickly in South Africa and they did so again in their ninth-place semi-final against Argentina at Paarl Gymnasium, taking the lead in only the fifth minute.
The Japanese dominated possession and territory in the early exchanges before captain Yoshiki Omachi caught Los Pumitas napping at a breakdown to canter under the posts.
Fly-half Kanjiro Naramoto added the simplest of conversions, but Japan’s lead was down to two points within three minutes as a brilliant Nicolás López González break set up Felipe Mallía to score in the left corner.
Argentina grew in confidence following that try and they soon scored a second, Efraín Elías the player to add the scoring finish following a number of pick and goes on the Japanese line.
Japan drove over the Argentine line themselves at the end of the first quarter, but the ball was held up, allowing their opponents to clear the danger.
Los Pumitas took full advantage of that let-off, adding two tries in the final 10 minutes of the first half. Scrum-half Agustín Moyano profited from a wonderful Tomás Bartolini offload in the 30th minute before Valentino Dicapua scythed a hole through the Japanese defence, which created the space for Mateo Soler to score in the right corner and give Argentina a 24-7 half-time lead.
Japan needed an almighty second-half effort to avoid playing in Friday’s relegation play-off and they set about their task impressively at the beginning of the second half.
Omachi had already had a try disallowed for a forward pass when Renji Oike took a scoring offload from Tomoki Kusuda on the right wing.
Naramoto converted from the touchline and narrowed the deficit still further with two penalties. The second of those came in the 54th minute following a scintillating attack that ended with Dicapua denying a line-break and being sent to the sin bin.
Being reduced to 14 players appeared to galvanise Los Pumitas however, and they soon scored their fifth try, through replacement Aitor Bildosola.
That was followed by a captain’s effort from Mastercard Player of the Match Eliseo Chiavassa, who powered through three attempted tackles on his five-metre journey to the Japanese try-line.
Mallía added his second conversion to give Argentina a 38-20 lead with a little under 19 minutes to go and that is how it stayed until the end when replacement Faustino Sánchez Valarolo bounced out of a couple of tackles and over the line.
Argentina will play Fiji in the ninth-place play-off on Friday, while Japan face Italy with the loser being relegated to next year’s U20 Trophy.