A coveted spot in the 2024 World Rugby Under-20 Championship is the ultimate prize for Uruguay and Spain, who meet in the Under-20 Trophy final in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday.
The two sides boast very similar unbeaten records in the second-tier under-20 tournament, each managing two bonus-point wins out of three en route to Sunday’s final, which kicks off at 16:00 local time (GMT +3).
Spain have scored eight more points in the tournament, totalling 129 in their three matches to date, compared to Uruguay’s 121 – but it’s in defence that Raul Perez’s European side seems to have the edge over their South American opponents.
The 2016 finalists have conceded just 28 points in their three Pool B matches against Samoa, Kenya and Spain. Uruguay, champions in 2008, have shipped a total of 71 in their games against Scotland, Zimbabwe and USA.
Captain Alvaro Garcia Albo described Spain’s defence as ‘tough’ after the 28-10 win over Samoa that ensured their place in the final. But he also pointed to their ability to make the most of their chances. “In these matches, it is important to take the opportunities the opposition gives you,” he said shortly after the final whistle on Tuesday.
U20 Trophy veterans Uruguay, in their 12th outing in the second-tier competition, have been warned, then, as they look to replicate the title-winning exploits of the 2008 generation.
But Los Teritos have plenty of tools in their box of rugby tricks to trouble Spain in the final, especially with a settled backline containing stellar talents like Guillermo Juan Storace in midfield.
Scotland coach Kenny Murray warned his players that third-place play-off opponents Samoa, “thrive off unstructured play, counterattack, turnovers, quick taps”.
“We’re going to have to try to put out that spark and nullify the unstructured game,” he said, confirming that Selkirk-based Macphail Scholarship-winner Monroe Job was set to make his debut in the back row, after spending the past year in Stellenbosch.
Scotland and Samoa have won two of their three matches to date – both missing out on a shot at the trophy with defeats in their last outing.
The Scots had been looking for an immediate return to the Championship, after being relegated in 2019, the last tournament before the pandemic. But were denied that chance when they lost an enthralling eight-try encounter with Uruguay 37-26 last time out.
“We want to finish third, that’s a no-brainer, so we’ve been working hard over the past couple of days to pick the guys back up and get them back on track,” Murray said.
Samoa coach Rudolf Moors, meanwhile, has made four changes to his side's starting line-up – three of them in the dangerous back line - following the midweek loss to finalists Spain, in their only defeat so far in the U20 Trophy in Nairobi.
And he’s promised a fast open game. He said: “We need to pick up the pace and win with speed – good, fast ball and a lot of commitment on both sides of the ball.”
The third-place play-off is scheduled to start at 12:00 (GMT +3)
The fifth-place play-off, between Zimbabwe and hosts Kenya, is a repeat of this year's Barthés Trophy final, played at the same venue at the end of April.
Zimbabwe won that match 28-7 to retain the title, and Kenya coach Curtis Aluoch is looking forward to resuming a long-standing rivalry in the rematch at 14:00 local time (GMT +3).
“There’s obviously something special – be it in the sevens, U20s or senior levels,” he said. “This match is no different and the boys are ready and motivated to set the record straight against Zimbabwe.”
Raphael Wanga returns to partner captain Mike Wamalwa in midfield in the one personnel change to Chipu’s starting XV, while Faran Juma moves from full-back to fly-half and James Olela swaps the wing for full-back. Eddy Wambugu drops to the bench while Zephenes Obwanga starts on the bench instead of Brian Mwendwa.
“We have grown with every game we have played,” Aluoch said. “We are keen to close out our campaign on a high.”
Pride at stake
Two other sides looking to close their U20 Trophy campaigns with a morale-boosting victory are USA and Hong Kong China, who both head into the seventh-place play-off that kicks off Sunday’s final-day action looking for their first tournament wins.
Dewi Simons joins Hong Kong China’s front row in the only change Logan Asplin has made to his starting side for the opening game on Sunday, which kicks off at 10:00 (GMT +3).
USA, meanwhile, will want to prove that their defeat against Zimbabwe, when they conceded 19 points in the final quarter to lose 38-37, after being comfortably ahead 30-19 ahead, was a flash in the pan.