An enthralling day of play got the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016 off to a flying start with two upsets, a few nervy moments for South Africa and victories for hosts England and defending champions New Zealand in Manchester.
A first-half hat-trick for Japan winger Ataata Moeakiola gave his side a surprise 19-7 lead over South Africa at one point, but some harsh words from coach Dawie Theron at half-time had the desired effect with six tries after the break securing a 59-19 victory in Pool C.
South Africa may have survived a scare, but there was no such luck for Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales or fifth seeds Australia, two fancied sides who slipped to defeat against Ireland (26-25) and Scotland (15-10) respectively.
Defending champions New Zealand ran in nine tries in an impressive display against Georgia in the pouring rain to win 55-0, while hosts England took time to find their form before running out 48-10 winners of Italy.
There was also an opening day win for Argentina, who scored two late tries to beat France 24-15.
The action continues on Saturday when Australia take on Italy before France meet Japan and South Africa tackle Argentina at the AJ Bell Stadium. Over at the Manchester City Academy Stadium, fans will be able to see New Zealand face Ireland, Wales look to bounce back against Georgia and England tackle Scotland.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 55-0 GEORGIA
Defending champions New Zealand took less than two minutes to open the scoring and tournament debutants Georgia found the handling and pace of their backline simply too hot to handle at times in the final game of the day at AJ Bell Stadium.
Full-back Shaun Stevenson, who has played Super Rugby with the Chiefs this season, dotted down for the opening try and was swiftly followed over the line by winger Caleb Makene before the clock had reached 10 minutes.
Georgia managed to steady the ship and held their own in the early scrums, winning two penalties, but two tries in quick succession from lively scrum-half Sam Nock and winger Jonah Lowe bringing up the bonus point with 30 minutes on the clock.
Lowe’s try came after a good break and grubber kick from impressive centre Jordie Barrett, the younger brother of U20 Championship 2011 and RWC 2015 winner Beauden, and showed the potency of the New Zealand backline. Nock had a hand in the final try of the first half, scored by Makene, to make it 31-0 at the break.
The heavens opened in the second half but there was no let-up in the attacking play of New Zealand with Lowe and man of the match Mitchell Jacobson going over by the 55-minute mark.
Georgia again managed to stem the wave after wave of attack from the men in black but a yellow card for Otari Giorgadze in the final 10 minutes led to two final scores for New Zealand through replacements Malo Tuitama and Hapakuki Moala-Liava’a.
Try-scorer Mitchell Jacobson, who played in the back-row alongside his younger brother Luke, said: "I was really happy with how the boys performed. We had a real onus on this game. We knew Georgia were going to come out with a real strong, forward-orientated game, so we focused on that all week."
POOL A: WALES 25-26 IRELAND
Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales looked on course to continue their impressive year after racing into a 17-0 lead against Ireland in the opening quarter with tries from flanker Shaun Evans, winger Keelan Giles and scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams, but their opponents had other ideas at Manchester City Academy Stadium.
Evans had gone over from close range before a perfectly-weighted kick from Daniel Jones fell into the arms of Giles without the winger needing to break stride and the Welsh fly-half had a hand in try number three, feeding the final pass to Morgan-Williams to run in. However he missed three of his five kicks at goal and that would ultimately have been the difference between winning and losing.
Ireland had conceded three tries in in seven minutes and were struggling to even get out of their own half, but they got on the scoreboard with Bill Johnston's drop goal and then scored two tries in the final few minutes of the half through hooker Adam McBurney and then Jacob Stockdale, the full-back combining well with centre Conor O'Brien.
That cut the deficit to just 17-15 at the interval and very much game on. Jones added a penalty shortly after the restart but Johnston kicked two of his own to give Ireland the lead for the first time in the match with 30 minutes still to go in a match that was hard to predict.
Ireland grew in confidence and continued to take the game to Wales with their reward coming when Stockdale claimed his second of the night with a little over 10 minutes to go. Johnston missed the conversion which meant it was a six-point ball game and Wales upped the ante and began to throw everything at their opponents in search of the winning score.
They did manage to go over in the left corner through Giles with two minutes to go, but Jarrod Evans couldn't convert from the touchline so Wales needed to score again. They couldn't manage it and were left with two bonus points to show for their efforts as Ireland celebrated after avenging their loss in the Six Nations earlier in the year.
Ireland coach Nigel Carolan: "What a game. We probably didn’t start the best, we gave them three tries and it looked like an uphill battle at 17-3 but I think we regrouped and with the last five minutes in that first half, to get the maul try and then just keep possession when the clock was running down. It really just got us back into the game and we started the second half as we finished the first, great pressure and we got our nose in front and I thought we looked comfortable. Wales really threw the kitchen sink at us and it was great character from our guys to hold on at the end and get a huge win."
Wales coach Jason Strange added: "An outstanding first 25 minutes, we played some outstanding rugby and pretty much everything was going to plan. After the first 25 Ireland kept the ball really well and frustrated us and we bought into that by giving some soft penalties away and the momentum quickly changed. To score four tries and lose is hard to accept but there were lots of good passages of play in our game and I thought with ball in hand we played some really good stuff and there’s plenty to take forward into our next games."
POOL B: ENGLAND 48-10 ITALY
Hosts England, bidding to reach a fourth successive U20 Championship final, got their campaign off to a winning start against Italy, but only put the gloss on the scoreboard with five tries in the second half to the delight of the crowd at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.
Flanker George Nott got the scoreboard up and running after nine minutes but Italy then created a few opportunities of their own with winger Luca Sperandio looking lively. Italy did score next, but it was courtesy of a well-taken drop goal from fly-half Leonardo Mantelli who impressed on the night.
An overthrown lineout led to England's second try when captain Harry Mallinder produced a kick out of the top draw to allow winger Sam Aspland-Robinson to take it without breaking stride to dot down. Mallinder, who led by example on his U20 debut, added a penalty to send the hosts in with a 17-3 advantage at the break.
England regrouped at half-time and Joe Marchant crossed for his side's third try after good work again from his centre partner Mallinder, the bonus point being wrapped up with a penalty try just before the hour mark.
There was still time for hooker Jack Singleton - who had scored four tries against Italy in the Six Nations this year - and replacement Zach Mercer to get their name on scoreboard.
The final say, though, was Italy's with flanker Lorenzo Masselli going over from close range in the last minute, much to coach Martin Haag's disappointment that they "need to play for the full 80 minutes".
Haag added: “We played some great attacking rugby, with some real intent which is what we are trying to do. At times it wasn’t as accurate as we would have liked it to be. As a group we have standards we are aspiring to and want to express ourselves in our play. We had the intent but we just weren’t quite accurate enough but that will come. It was great to blow the cobwebs away and now we need to recover ahead of a big game on Saturday.”
POOL B: AUSTRALIA 10-15 SCOTLAND
Scotland had been quietly confident of upsetting the more fancied Australia in their opening match and while the red card for centre Campbell Magnay meant they played with a man advantage for the majority of the second half they were worthy winners against an out-of-sorts opponent.
The match remained scoreless through the first quarter despite Magnay paying an early visit to the sin-bin, before Adam Hastings, the son of former Scotland and Lions legend Gavin, kicked a 21st-minute penalty. That lead was only short-lived though as Australian pressure finally told when second-row Isack Rodda crashed through the defence for the opening try.
Australia went in 7-3 at half-time but they were on the back foot after only five minutes of the second half when Magnay received a second yellow for a dangerous tackle and it took Scotland just two minutes to take the lead, test-capped prop Zander Fagersonburrowing over for his side's first try.
Despite being a man down Australia continued to pile on the pressure and a Mack Mason penalty regained the lead with 25 minutes to go at AJ Bell Stadium. Scotland, though, had other ideas and winger Darcy Graham fielded a kick on halfway and scythed through the defence, having the pace to run in the try despite a desperate tap tackle attempt of Australia captain James Tuttle.
There was still time for Australia to snatch an unlikely victory and, after opting for repeated scrums deep in Scotland's territory, it nearly paid off as winger Simon Kennewell thought he had scored, only for the TMO to correctly rule his foot had touched the line. Scotland survived and were able to celebrate a famous victory that boosts their hopes of bettering their best ever finish of eighth recorded last year.
Scotland Try-scorer Fagerson said: "It's a great bunch of guys, all looking for the same things and to achieve the same goals and we're on the same page so that last five minutes was a testament to that. Today we managed to pull it off so we're chuffed. It was never in doubt so we're happy. We felt like we did well in the scrums, obviously sometimes we got it wrong but the boys done good and that last scrum won us the game and when it counted we got stuck in and got it done."
Australia coach Adrian Thompson: “We are very disappointed with the performance we put out today and at times we were our own worst enemy. Our handling errors were not up to the standard we have set for ourselves in 2016 and we started the match too slowly. Going a man down against a good team like Scotland was always going to hamper our performance, however credit to Scotland who defended well against us. We now have to pick ourselves up and get ready for Italy.”
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 59-19 JAPAN
South African fans could have been forgiven for getting a sense of deja vu after Ataata Moeakiola's hat-trick gave Japan a 19-7 lead in the first half, asking themselves whether lightning could strike twice in the space of eight months after the Brave Blossoms' victory at RWC 2015.
Everything seemed to be going to plan when flanker Zain Davids grabbed the opening try, but the Junior Springboks were making uncharacteristic efforts and allowing Japan to turnover the ball repeatedly in their own 22. Even so, it sitll looked like Japan could only hold out so long against the constant wave of attacks.
Instead it was Japan Moeakiola who took centre stage at the Manchester City Academy Stadium. The winger, who made his test debut in the recent Asia Rugby Championship, charged straight through the defence at pace to draw his side level and then used his strength to beat the defender to claim a cross-field kick from fly-half Taisetsu Kanai and dot down.
He wasn't finished there, though, with his hat-trick wrapped up inside 11 minutes and few could believe what they were watching inside the stadium, Japan leading 19-14 with 31 minutes on the clock. South Africa were stunned, but they crucially got a try before the break through centre JT Jackson.
It would still not have been an easy dressing room to be in at half-time, but whatever coach Dawie Theron said at half-time had the desired effect as his players were transformed after the break and Japan simply had no answer to their play as the Junior Springboks ran in six tries.
Captain Jeremy Ward ran in two, either side of a second for the impressive Davids who was unstoppable when he got on the rampage, before fly-half Manie Libbok, wiinger Mosolwa Mafuma and replacement Carlu Sadi wrapped up the scoring to make it 59-19 with Curwin Bosch converting all bar one of South Africa's eight tries.
Theron said: "We saw some pictures from a few months ago flying through our minds during that first half but I think the guys were really nervous. They had a bit of over eagerness and we didn’t scrum well in that first half. I think the guys just needed to settle down a bit. We had a hard talk at half-time and then we started focusing on the right things. In the first half we created about three or four scoring opportunities but the execution was just awful. If you get opportunities in the World Cup you should convert them into points. However, I am very proud about how they came back in the second half."
Japan coach Ryuji Nakatake: "I thought the first half was really great but at the beginning of the second half we made too many mistakes and it was too easy to score for them. That changed the momentum, which was really disappointing and affected our mental game. South Africa changed their system in the second half but we couldn’t adjust to their new game plan."
POOL C: FRANCE 15-24 ARGENTINA
Argentina had trailed for much of the match against France at AJ Bell Stadium, but two tries in the final eight minutes saw Los Pumitas secure the winning start that is so important in a tournament where only the pool winners are guaranteed a place in the semi-finals.
Fly-half Domingo Miotti, one of nine Youth Olympic Games medallists in the two line-ups, scored the first points of the 2016 Championship with a penalty from the half-way line but it was France who claimed the match’s opening try in the 10th minute.
Scrum-half Antoine Dupont had already been lively in attack before he chipped the ball through and regathered to run in the try. Anthony Belleau failed to convert, but the fly-half and Miotti traded penalties to give Les Bleuets a slender 8-6 lead at half-time.
The second half continued to ebb one way and then the other as France increased their advantage to 15-6 with a penalty try in the 52nd minute, but Argentina refused to buckle and two penalties in quick succession from Martin Elias – Miotti’s replacement – setting up a tense finale.
Replacement scrum-half Lautaro Bazan Velez darted over from close range to edge Los Pumitas ahead and just three minutes later fellow replacement Bautista Stavile Bravin charged 30 metres and managed to touch down despite a desperate French tackle. The smile on his face and the celebrations at the final whistle told just how much the win meant to Los Pumitas.
Argentina coach Nicolas Fernandez Lobbe said: “We struggled in the scrum in the first half and we perhaps got lucky at the end but we showed real determination and some excellent skill to beat France. The players are incredibly proud and happy with the win here today and we now look to South Africa, after some rest. We have played them in this competition before so we know what to expect and after beating Japan, they will also be confident.”