A first-time finalist is guaranteed at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016 with Ireland and Argentina set to meet in the first semi-final at the Manchester City Academy Stadium next Monday after overcoming Georgia and Japan respectively.
Both Ireland and Argentina, who finished top of Pool A and C respectively after three victories, have reached the last four once before, Los Pumitas losing to South Africa in 2012 and Ireland to England two years ago. Ironically the two sides they lost to went on to lift the distinctive trophy.
Argentina were the first to book their place in the semi-final with a 39-20 victory over Japan at AJ Bell Stadium to top Pool C and were then joined by Ireland, who overcame 14-man Georgia 35-7 at the Manchester City Academy Stadium to claim the Pool A honours.
England confirmed their place as Pool B winners with a hard-fought 17-13 win over Australia in the final match at AJ Bell Stadium and will now face the best runners-up in South Africa, who claimed a crucial bonus point in seeing off France 40-31 to pip New Zealand.
New Zealand failed to secure a bonus point, only taking the lead against Wales in the 79th minute to win 18-17, and that not only ended their title defence but also meant they will not take part in the semi-finals for the first time in U20 Championship history.
The other winners on the final day were Scotland, who had moments of individual brilliance to thank for a 27-19 victory over Italy to record two wins in the pool stages for the first time.
POOL A: IRELAND 35-7 GEORGIA
Ireland knew they would not have it all their only way against Georgia after the way the U20 Trophy 2015 winners played against Wales last Saturday and so it proved when the Junior Lelos opened the scoring at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.
Georgia’s first ever try at the U20 Championship was, somewhat fittingly, scored by their captain and talisman Vasil Lobzhanidze, the scrum-half wrong-footing the Irish defence with an outrageous dummy before showing a good turn of pace to cross for the historic try after five minutes.
They set themselves an uphill task just minutes later when blindside flanker Ilia Spanderashvili was sent off for an act of foul play, but to Georgia’s credit they continued to battle hard, especially at scrum time where they gave Ireland a torrid time.
Ireland struck back when good hands released winger Hugo Keenan on a clear run down the left flank and worse was to come for Georgia when referee Craig Evans, after consulting with the TMO, sent off Spanderashvili for an incident in the build-up.
Two penalties from Ireland fly-half Johnny McPhillips and a bad miss from his opposite number Davit Modzgvrishvili after another almighty shove from the Georgian pack, pointed to the fact that this wasn’t going to be the Junior Lelos’ day despite their bravery.
After a period of 20 minutes without any points being scored, Ireland finally found through just before half-time. Wave after wave of attacks from the forwards softened up the defence before the ball was sent out to McPhillips, who showed great footwork to dance his way over. He added the extras and any nerves Ireland may have had appeared to disappear.
A third McPhillips penalty 13 minutes after the break handed Ireland a 16-point cushion, and they went further in front just before the hour mark when winger Terry Kennedy profited from good work inside him by Greg Jones and Jimmy O'Brien.
Again Georgia showed great heart to keep Ireland scoreless while they were down to 13 men following prop Luka Goginava’s late sin-binning, but there was still time for fellow front-row replacement Andrew Porter to put the finishing touches to a workmanlike win.
Ireland captain Paul Kiernan: "We knew Georgia would be really physical and they really took it to us but in the end we were pleased to get the bonus point and move on. At half-time we weren't very happy with our control of the game, we were giving away a lot of possession with nine turnovers at that time, but we got that right and started playing in the wide channels. I'm really proud of the boys."
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 18-17 WALES
The rain began to fall ahead of this match, conditions both sides should have been used too after the previous match days, but it was Wales who came out of the blocks flying at AJ Bell Stadium, fly-half Daniel Jones kicking a second-minute penalty.
Jones had endured an off day with the boot in round one against Ireland but had clearly found his kicking boots for this must-win match for both sides as it was his kick through that was collected by Joe Thomas for the opening try, punishing New Zealand for a knock-on a metre from their line.
A second penalty made it 11-0 to Wales, before Jordie Barrett cancelled it out with a strike of his own and the world champions should have cut the deficit even more but they dropped the ball as they picked and went from a metre out.
Instead it was Wales who added a third penalty from Jones in the 34th minute and it looked like that would be the score at half-time but, with the clock in red, Seb Davies was yellow carded for not retreating 10 metres and from the resultant scrum Sam Nock darted over to make it 14-10.
New Zealand were unable to add any more points while Davies was off and instead found themselves a man down after Barrett saw yellow for a late hit on fly-half Jones, who picked himself up to kick a fourth penalty of the match.
The defending champions scored a second try just before the hour mark through Shaun Stevenson, the full-back stepping his way to the line but Barrett missed the opportunity to tie the scores by pulling his conversion wide. He wasn't alone as Wales replacement Billy McBryde missed a penalty with 13 minutes to go to set up a tense finale.
Wales looked to have done enough despite New Zealand started to threaten a little more, but with just over a minute left a cross-field kick from Barrett, a shot to nothing with a penalty advantage being played, was deemed to have been deliberately knocked into touch by Welsh winger Tom Williams. He was yellow-carded and up stepped Barrett to kick the penalty and break Welsh hearts in the process at yet another one-point loss in Manchester.
New Zealand match-winner Barrett: "We only just won, we didn't want it to come down to that, but we are in with a chance of the semi-finals and that is all that we wanted. We have done all we can do and it's out of our hands now. We were looking to get the try bonus point but we got the win. We knew Wales would be physical and combative, but we had to take them on at our own game and try and stretch them. They made it hard for us to play."
Wales try-scorer Thomas: "I thought we had learned a lot from the Georgia game and put into today's game and, like Georgia, New Zealand put a lot of pressure on us. It was a 15-man effort out there and all the boys can be proud of that performance today and we lost to a little penalty."
POOL B: SCOTLAND 29-17 ITALY
Scotland broke new ground by winning two pool matches for the first time after beating Italy in a stop-start encounter at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.
In the end it was a couple of costly mistakes from the Italians that decided the game in Scotland’s favour, Robbie Nairn and then Alastair Miller, with the bonus-point try, ruthlessly capitalising on dropped catches under the high ball.
Prop Murray McCallum and full-back Blair Kinghorn, rightly named man-of-the-match, were Scotland’s other try scorers while number eight Giovanni Licata, prop Daniele Rimpelli and winger Pierre Bruno crossed for the Azzurrini, who finished the game strongly.
It took a show-and-go from the impressive Adam Hastings, son of Scotland and Lions legend Gavin, to spark an otherwise dull game into life. After a series of rucks the ball was spread wide to prop McCallum, who burrowed over from close range.
Scotland thought they’d scored another when winger Ben Robbins followed up his own kick to touch down but the TMO ruled he had knocked on before grounding the ball. Italy roared back and put Scotland under intense pressure, Licata driving over from a lineout to score Italy’s 50th try in U20 Championship history.
With Leonardo Mantelli’s conversion Italy led 7-5, and they held on to that advantage until half-time. A penalty from Hastings and then two tries in the space of four minutes saw the momentum shift Scotland’s way.
Nairn was gift-wrapped a try when a clearance kick by Matt McPhillips from behind his own goal-line was fumbled by Luca Sperandio on halfway and the ball dropped straight into the arms of Scotland’s winger who gratefully accepted the opportunity and sped downfield unopposed.
The outstanding Kinghorn was next to cross, but Italy kept their hopes alive when Rimpelli chalked up another try for the ‘front row union’. Hastings’ missed penalty was then followed by Miller’s try, before Italy were rewarded for a strong finish with a try at the death for Bruno, after an earlier effort in the same corner by Marco Zanon had been ruled out for a foot in touch.
Scotland captain Scott Cummings: "We knew we were going to have to put in a good performance to get a result. At times we played very well and at others there were things we could improve on but I still think that was a good performance from the boys. I think the game against England was a bit of a wake-up call after our win against Australia because it showed that if we don't play at our very best every time we're not going to get the right result. Our goal was to win two of our pool games so we are happy to achieve that but I think there is still a lot more to come from us."
POOL B: ENGLAND 17-13 AUSTRALIA
England were in the driving seat going into their final match, knowing that avoiding defeat would guarantee them a place in the semi-finals. In fact even a defeat to Australia, so long as they got one or two bonus points depending on the result, would have seen them through.
They certainly couldn’t have got off to a worst start as they fumbled the kick-off, allowing Australia to turn over the ball and mount a quick attack, fly-half Mack Mason beginning what would be an impressive display by finding full-back Jack Maddocks who danced his way over after just 27 seconds.
Mason added the conversion, but Australia quickly handed his opposite number Harry Mallinder a penalty attempt and he made no mistake to cap a frenetic opening four minutes to this Pool B decider at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Mallinder pulled a second penalty wide after 15 minutes which would have been just reward for England’s dominance of territory and possession, but Mason made no mistake with his own effort just before the half-hour mark to re-establish Australia’s seven-point buffer.
The two fly-halves traded penalties to give Australia 13-6 lead at half-time, a scenario which, had it remained that way at full-time, would have still seen England top the pool. The hosts, though, regrouped during the break and managed to shut their opponents out to seal victory.
Mallinder’s deft kick through bounced up perfectly for centre Joe Marchant to dot the ball down, but his fly-half was off target again with the conversion to leave England still trailing 13-11 with 27 minutes to go.
He pulled his next penalty wide before finding his kicking boots again to kick two further penalties to ensure England finished the pool stages with three wins from three and the top seeding. The bonus point was scant consolation for Australia as they miss out on the semi-finals again.
England fly-half Harry Mallinder: "It wasn't pretty at times but I'm chuffed to get the win. We will enjoy it tonight I think because we are through to a semi-final and that's an achievement in itself, but we will review the game properly tomorrow. South Africa is going to be a massive challenge and even bigger challenge than today, but fair play to Australia they pushed us really hard and to the end."
Australia coach Adrian Thompson: “We are disappointed that we could not get the required result against England and will once again have to face the battle for fifth. We started the match well but took the pressure off in parts of the match and England capitalised on those errors. I was impressed with the team’s character to hang in there for the full 80 minutes but ultimately we need to be better at finishing our opposition off when we have the chance. We will dust ourselves off and get ready for an incredibly strong battle to finish fifth with New Zealand, Wales and Scotland.”
POOL C: ARGENTINA 39-20 JAPAN
Japan clearly hadn’t read the script of an Argentina win to top Pool C as they scored twice in the opening six minutes, catching Argentina cold with test capped players Ataata Moeakiola and Tevita Tatafu getting their names on the scoresheet.
The first came from a lineout and drive towards the line, Moeakiola – playing at fly-half again – cutting through a poor attempted tackle to score his fourth of the tournament. The dust had barely settled when Japan turned over ball and number Tatafu charged down the wing for number two.
Argentina eventually settled and two tries from winger Jose Barros Sosa gave them the lead, 12-10, in the 24th minute, his first coming when he collected a little kick through from Domingo Miotti and the second when he finished off a move along the backline.
Moeakiola and Miotti traded penalties again to make the half-time score 15-13 in Argentina’s favour and that was as close as Japan would get to a first victory of the tournament with three tries in the second half wrapping up the win Los Pumitas needed.
Within three minutes highly-rated flanker Marcos Kremer went over from close range and then replacement Mariano Romanini was on the end of a pop pass inside to charge over for the bonus point try with 54 minutes on the clock.
That looked like the try that had booked Argentina’s place in the semi-finals but Japan gave them food for thought with a powerful driving maul, Tatafu diving over the line for his second of the match to cut the deficit to 29-20.
Argentina weren’t to be denied, though, captain Juan Cruz Mallia stepping his way through the defence after some good work from Miotti for number five, before replacement Martin Elias added a penalty to put the gloss on the win.
Argentina captain and try scorer Mallia: "We knew that it was going to be a difficult match but we worked hard and have made the semi-finals which is a great feeling. We had clear objectives for this tournament and that was to take it step by step, match by match, and we knew we could do it. It's a dream. Now we are going to the semis and hopefully we can go to the final. We are learning match by match so let's see what happens."
Japan try-scorer Moeakiola: "Our defence is getting better, we need a bit more energy to improve but I think we are getting better at everything."
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 40-31 FRANCE
Full-back Curwin Bosch was the star man for South Africa once again as the Junior Springboks qualified for the semi-finals as the best runner-up following an impressive bonus-point victory over France. Bosch, the tournament’s leading points scorer before day three began, extended his tally to 47 points through a try, three conversions and three penalties against Les Bleuets in the final match of the day at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.
South Africa’s other tries, in an entertaining contest that could have gone either way until the 2012 champions ran away with it in the final quarter, came from scrum-half Embrose Papier, irrepressible flanker Zain Davids, Manie Libbok and lightning-quick winger Edwill van der Merwe.
France scored three times before the break through forwards Mathieu Tanguy and Michael Simutoga and full-back Romain Buros, before Gabriel Ngandebe rounded off proceedings by scoring Les Bleuets’ bonus-point try at the death. Striking a good balance between forwards and backs, France got off to a positive start and a fifth minute try for second-row Tanguy, after an offload from flanker Mathieu Voisin, was just reward for their efforts.
South Africa knew that a win by 13 points or more or a bonus-point victory would be required, depending on results elsewhere, to ensure coach Dawie Theron’s dream of signing off with a second U20 Championship title remained alive, and they piled the pressure on France after falling behind.
Two Bosch penalties were followed by a try for scrum-half Papier, who wriggled under the attempted tackle of Anthony Belleau to score by the posts. Bosch converted and suddenly South Africa had taken a 13-7 lead.
Back came France and shortly after Belleau had slotted a penalty Les Bleuets crossed for two tries in the space of three minutes, both converted by the inside centre. Barnstorming tight-head Simutoga was first to cross from a driven lineout move, before full-back Buros finished off a fluent attack involving forwards and backs.
Davids’ try five minutes before the break finally stopped the flow of points against South Africa, and from that point on Theron’s side took control of the scoreboard. Van der Merwe had already caused havoc in the French defence with one electric run down the right by the time he showed Les Bleuets number eight Anthony Jeloch a clean pair of his heels on his way to the try-line.
France’s task was then made even harder when fly-half Romuald Seguy was sent to the sin-bin in the 47th minute. Tries in quick succession for Libbok and Bosch, after a brilliant one-handed take to gather in JT Jackson’s grubber kick, killed the game off as a contest.
Bosch added a third penalty soon after. France played with more than a nod to their flamboyant past and replacement back Ngandebe’s weaving solo run was a score fit to round off any occasion, although it wasn’t enough to save his side from a place among the teams battling to avoid relegation.
South Africa captain Jeremy Ward: "We came into the game knowing that we would need a perfect performance. It may not have been the perfect performance but the boys put in a perfect effort today and I cannot fault them for that. We worked hard to get in the positions we were in, and if we had to break ourselves, we had to break ourselves. But the boys fought it out and I am so proud of them. We saw the space out wide and put it to good use. I can't wait for it [semi-final with England], I can promise you that."