Five takeaways from day four of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023
We pick out some of the main talking points from a day full of shocks, surprises and some incredible skills.
France head into the World Rugby U20 Championship final against Ireland on Friday with the chance to become only the second nation to win three titles in a row.
Should Les Bleuets triumph at Athlone Sports Stadium (kick-off 19:00 local time, GMT+2) they will pull level with England on three U20 Championship wins, having won the two most recent editions in 2018 and 2019.
They would still have some way to go to match New Zealand, the most successful team in tournament history with six titles, four of which were won consecutively between 2008-11.
And speaking ahead of the fourth all-northern hemisphere final, France captain Lenni Nouchi insisted his side were not burdened by emulating history.
“The pressure is there, but I don't think it has anything to do with the two previous titles,” Nouchi said.
“As we often say with Séb [Calvet, France coach] and the players, this is our story. This is the 2003-2004 generation, and the generations follow each other but they are not alike.
“Today, it's us. We've created our own history, so we're under pressure, but from our results, not from matching other people's results."
Calvet has stuck with the same starting line-up that recovered from going 17-0 down to beat England 52-31 in the semi-finals.
Les Bleuets lead the U20 Championship head-to-head between the sides four victories to one, but that lone defeat came in Cape Town 11 years ago when JJ Hanrahan kicked Ireland to an 18-7 victory in the fifth-place play-off at Newlands.
Ireland have won two of the three most recent meetings, including a thrilling 33-31 victory at Musgrave Park in Cork in February, which ultimately helped them to secure a second successive U20 Six Nations Grand Slam.
Richie Murphy has made only one personnel change to the Ireland side as James McNabney returns to the back-row following suspension, with Diarmuid Mangan moving to the second-row and Charlie Irvine starting on the bench.
Calvet isn’t expecting any surprises from Ireland in terms of how they will approach the final, but is confident France have what it takes to beat them on Friday.
“It's really going to be a duel of project versus project,” he said. “When you're preparing for a final, you work on all your strong points.
“And that second half [against Ireland in the U20 Six Nations], despite the penalties, was still a half where we had the momentum, where we could have won the game.
“So, we’ve based our preparations for this match mainly on the second half of the game in Ireland, and we feel we have all the tools we need to worry them, to win this game.”
South Africa take on England in the third-place play-off (kick-off 16:30 local time) at Athlone Sports Stadium hoping to finish their home tournament on a high.
The Junior Springboks ran into an Irish defensive brick wall in the semi-finals last Sunday, losing 31-12 despite playing much of the match in their opponents’ half.
Coach Bafana Nhleko has made seven changes to the South Africa line-up, largely injury-enforced, but believes his players have the motivation to stop a run of five successive defeats to England at the U20 Championship.
“It has probably been draining for [the players], especially after how we played against Ireland and still lost the game,” he said. “But the fact that we are representing our country, the fact that there's still a third place to play for that should be enough motivation.
“We've said, for some of them, it's just life. They might never get to wear the green and gold again. We hope they all do, but we know that's not how life works. So, it's important that they give a good account of themselves and not just for the group, but really to show what they're capable of.”
England coach Mark Mapletoft has also made seven personnel changes as his side attempt to complete an all-northern hemisphere top .
Joe Bailey, who joined the squad as an injury replacement, is set to make his debut in the second-row as England aim to finish the tournament on a high.
Mapletoft said: “Going up against the hosts on Friday will be a challenge, but I have confidence in the players to put in a performance that they can be proud of.”
Day five will get underway at 12:00 local time when Italy and Japan meet at Danie Craven Stadium with U20 Championship safety on the line.
Whoever loses the 11th-place play-off will be relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2024, meaning there could not be more at stake when the two teams run out in Stellenbosch.
Italy have won each of their two previous matches against Japan at the U20 Championship, including the relegation play-off in 2016 when the Azzurrini ran in six tries in a 41-17 win.
Japan finished 12th again in 2018, their most recent U20 Championship campaign prior to this year, but Italy coach Massimo Brunello insists his side must be at their best to win.
Italy finished third in this year’s U20 Six Nations – and won three matches in 2022 – before beating hosts South Africa in the pool stage, and Brunello has urged his players to rediscover that form.
“Clearly, we have our destiny in our hands right now, but only the real Italy will be able to fully play as in the last two Six Nations, and as we saw at its highest level against South Africa in this tournament.
"Japan are a team that knows how to play rugby, very well organised, counting on players that from a technical point of view are all at a very good level, and we'll have to play our best rugby to turn our efforts into a good result and keep our place in the Championship.”
The action at Danie Craven Stadium will continue with the ninth-place play-off between Fiji and Argentina, kick-off 14:30 local time.
Fiji secured their first win of the 2023 edition last Sunday, beating Italy 41-26, while Argentina held off a spirited Japan to eventually run out 45-20 winners.
Stellenbosch will the host its final match of the tournament when Georgia take on New Zealand in the seventh-place play-off at 17:00 local time.
Georgia are already guaranteed their best-ever U20 Championship finish following a tournament in which they beat Argentina and were on course to qualify for the semi-finals until the final 11 minutes of the pool stage.
New Zealand, meanwhile, have never finished lower than seventh and will hope to maintain that record with a third successive tournament victory against Georgia.
New Zealand previously beat the Junior Lelos 55-0 in 2016 and 45-13 in 2019, both in the pool stage, and Clark Laidlaw’s side will be hoping for a hat-trick on Friday.
Earlier, the action at Athlone Sports Stadium will get underway with the fifth-place play-off between Australia and Wales (kick-off 14:00 local time).
The teams have previously met four times at the U20 Championship, with Australia winning the first three before Wales broke their duck with a 26-21 victory in Béziers, France, in 2018.
Should Wales – who finished the 2023 U20 Six Nations winless and bottom of the standings – secure a second successive victory in the fixture then it would confirm their best U20 Championship showing since they were beaten finalists in 2013.