The skies cleared over Manchester as the kick-offs on day four of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016 approached and fans were rewarded with a feast of tries, including 13 as Ireland and hosts England cut loose to book their places in the title decider on Saturday.
Ireland scored three first-half tries in the opening semi-final – including a 70-metre intercept from man of the match Max Deegan – and Argentina were never in the match, allowing the Irish to reach a first ever U20 Championship final at the second attempt after a 37-7 victory.
England were even more ruthless, producing an almost perfect half of rugby to blow 2012 champions South Africa off the park, scoring five tries with many the result of quick handling and hard running at a Junior Springbok defence who simply had no answer.
They did rally with two quick tries in four minutes, but there was no way back from a 31-3 half-time deficit and England march on to a fourth successive final and seventh overall following a 39-17 victory over the Junior Springboks.
New Zealand were the most ruthless of the day, though, scoring 11 tries in a scintillating display of running rugby to beat Wales 71-12 in the opening match at the Manchester City Academy Stadium. They will now play Australia for fifth after they overcame Scotland 35-19 at AJ Bell Stadium.
The other two matches at the AJ Bell Stadium saw a piece of history created with Georgia winning their first ever U20 Championship match after beating Italy 18-17. They will now face France, while Japan will meet Italy with the loser to be relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2017.
SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND 37-7 ARGENTINA
Argentina’s passion had been the catalyst for their impressive wins over South Africa, France and Japan in the pool stages, but it was perhaps their undoing in this battle for a maiden U20 Championship final with Ireland.
Los Pumitas were literally bouncing out of the line-up they were that fired up during the anthem, but they were uncharacteristically subdued throughout the match and never really recovered from Jacob Stockdale scoring the opening try in the eighth minute.
A driving maul took Ireland towards the line and when the ball came back fly-half Johnny McPhillips put up a kick to the corner, Matthew Byrne challenging well in the air and the ball eventually finding full-back Stockdale to spin over the line.
Argentina fly-half Domingo Miotti missed a penalty minutes later and it was Ireland who struck next, somewhat against the run of play, when number eight Max Deegan read a pass to make the interception and charge 70 metres downfield to score.
A third try followed through Stockdale and Ireland were 21-0 and coasting, but Argentina gave themselves a glimmer of on the stroke of half-time when Los Pumitas claimed lineout ball and Miotti put through a little dink which captain Juan Cruz Mallia raced through to dot down.
That would be the final points they would score, though, as Ireland kept the scoreboard ticking over with three penalties from McPhillips before Argentina were reduced to 14 men with eight minutes to go after replacement prop Santiago Pulella saw red for use of the head.
Ireland were not finished and even when the clocked ticked into the red they continued to push for a fourth try. It did come, while their replacement hooker Vincent O’Brien was in the sin-bin after a neck roll, with centre Shane Daly rewarded for an impressive display.
Ireland captain James Ryan: "I’m hugely proud of the group. It has been a long season and to be heading into a World Championship final is a great way to be finishing it. The set piece was a big focus heading into this game, we knew if we could get a bit of dominance at scrum time and at the lineout it would go a long way to winning us the game. Saturday is going to be a big day for Irish rugby."
Man of the match Max Deegan: "I thought we got off to a great start, one of our best starts of the tournament. That really got us going and we just had to keep our heads down and keep being ruthless. I feel great at the moment, we can't wait now ... whoever we play it really doesn't bother us. We're the first Ireland under-20s side to reach a final."
SEMI-FINAL: ENGLAND 39-17 SOUTH AFRICA
England and South Africa are no strangers to meeting at this stage of the U20 Championship, having done so on three previous occasions and the outcome was no different this time with the hosts in a mood to dominant from the outside.
They were rewarded with potentially the fastest ever try in a U20 Championship semi-final, scored in the third minute by scrum-half Max Green who was in support when centre Johnny Williams burst through the Junior Springbok defence after a turnover.
England could hardly believe their luck when a second followed inside eight minutes, quick hands creating space for hooker Jack Singleton on the wing only for him to be hauled down just short. The ball was quickly recycled and second-row Huw Taylor stretched his long arms out to dot down.
It got worse for South Africa with their captain Jeremy Ward sin-binned for a dangerous tackle and in his absence England added a third through when winger Sam Aspland-Robinson made it look far too easy to break the line.
Williams added a fourth try just past the half-hour mark and, despite Will Evans seeing yellow for a dangerous tackle on the stroke of half-time, there was one more try to come as Harry Mallinder’s kick was gathered by Joe Marchant, the centre putting Max Malins through.
England had the match all but wrapped up, but South Africa came out with some fight after what was sure to have been a few stern words from coach Dawie Theron. They were fortunate not to concede again when Williams made a break, instead going down the other to score themselves.
Mallinder’s use of the cross-field kick this time was easily telegraphed by winger Edwill van der Merwe, who caught the kick unchallenged and, showing the pace that has seen him compared to Springbok centurion Bryan Habana, sprinted virtually the length of the pitch to score.
A second try four minutes later through full-back Curwin Bosch gave a hint that a miraculous comeback may not be beyond the 2012 champions, but it was not to be as within minutes a Mallinder penalty calmed England’s nerves at 34-17 with 25 minutes to go.
It looked like that would be the final score despite both sides continuing to attack, but then eight minutes from time quick hands saw Malins slip through a lazy tackle and pass to replacement Max Wright on his outside for an easy run-in.
England man of the match George Nott: "The boys were amazing today and already I can’t wait for the final. I think we really showed what we could do, we were dangerous in attack and solid in defence."
England coach Martin Haag: "With the way Ireland played today they have got to go into the final as favourites. This group of players keep on surprising me whenever they take to the field with their intent and the way they want to work hard for each other. We scored some good tries off the back of our defence and some of our attacking play was fantastic. The first half was outstanding. I think we played at a bit more pace, we scored a couple of good tries, transitioned well and started well. We didn’t finish the game as well as we would have liked but it was great rugby in that first half and that was job done really."
South Africa captain Jeremy Ward: "All credit to England, they came at us hard and played to their strengths and they took advantage of our weaknesses. We didn’t play our best today and we will go back to the drawing board and go all out to get third place. We were a little bit flat in attack and their line speed was pretty good. The experience of the whole tournament has been amazing. We have all learned so much as players and as a team. We came here to win the competition but unfortunately that isn’t going to happen but I am proud of the guys nonetheless."
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 71-12 WALES
Having missed out on the semi-finals for the first time in U20 Championship history, New Zealand were a team with a point to prove in this match and, unfortunately for Wales, they did so in style with 11 tries from seven different players.
The two sides had played a completely different match only five days ago, the defending champions snatching an 18-17 win with a last-minute penalty but failure to get the try bonus point proved costly with South Africa claiming the best runner-up spot in the semi-finals instead.
This time tries were came with regularity, four of them inside the opening 12 minutes as New Zealand left the Six Nations champions shell-shocked and perhaps wondering even what day it was such was the tidal wave of black running their way.
Winger Jonah Lowe got the first try after just 40 seconds and second-row Hamish Dalzell then charged down Daniel Jones’ kick for a second in the third minute. Right-wing Caleb Makene then got in on the act in the seventh minute before Shaun Stevenson continued his trait of scoring in every match.
Wales did manage to half the one-way traffic when some good pressure and patience resulted in a try for their own full-back Joe Gage, but New Zealand scored a fifth try on the half-hour mark through number eight Hakapuki Moala-Liava’a to make it 35-5 at half-time.
New Zealand started the second half as they did the first, taking just two minutes for captain and hooker Leni Apisai dotting down with Wales winger Jared Rosser sin-binned for a dangerous tackle. In his absence a fantastic pass from replacement Jonathan Taumateine giving Makene his second.
Quentin Strange then joined us second-row partner on the scoresheet with number eight and there was still plenty of time for Stevenson to claim his second after a great break from replacement prop Alex Fidow and Makene to complete his hat-trick with time up. Wales did cross the line themselves, but Harrison Keddie’s run-in was scant consolation.
New Zealand hat-trick scorer Caleb Makene: "It wasn't so much about revenge, I think the boys were trying to make a statement. The boys were a little bit down after not making the semis so credit to them and credit to Wales, they gave a strong performance. I think the team was working well and all structures came off and I was just lucky to be on the end of some good play from the midfield to score."
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: SCOTLAND 19-35 AUSTRALIA
Australia set up an all-Oceania fifth place play-off with New Zealand - and a third meeting between the sides in under two months after they shared the two-match Oceania Rugby U20 Championship series in early May - after punishing Scotland’s profligacy in front of goal.
Adam Hastings and replacement kicker Hugh Fraser missed three straightforward penalties in the space of nine first-half minutes as Scotland failed to capitalise on Lukhan Lealaiaulolo-Tui’s sin-binning.
As a result, Australia led 14-12 at the break after the sides shared four tries. Tight-head prop Tyrel Lomax and hard-running centre Sione Tuipolotu scored Australia’s tries with scores from Fraser and winger Robbie Nairn sandwiched in between for Scotland.
Scotland started the second half with real purpose and nearly scored when Mack Mason spilled a pass behind his own line. Lewis Anderson dived on the loose ball but referee Craig Evans ruled that a relieved Mason had got a hand there first.
It wasn’t long, however, before Scotland were in front, captain and second-row Scott Cummings barging his way over from close range on 44 minutes and hopes were raised of a repeat of their historic victory over Australia on day one.
Australia, though, were rewarded for attacking from deep inside their own 22 when Tuipolotu finished off a brilliant team move to score his second of the game. They backed that try up with 14 more points without reply, Liam Wright strolling home after Scotland ran out of numbers in defence before replacement Jordan Jackson-Hope put the gloss on the win with a try a minute from time.
Australia fly-half Mason: “We just made sure that the little things were done right [this time]. The first half was a bit disappointing, we gave away too many penalties. It is a bit disappointing not to finish first but for us it is always a big game when facing New Zealand. They are the best team in the world regardless and we will be looking to get the win.”
Scotland captain Cummings: “At the start of the tournament we had a goal of winning two out of the three games in the group stages and we have achieved that. Now our go is to get the highest U20 finish ever for Scotland, we couldn't quite secure that today but that is our goal for Saturday. We will be against another really good side in Wales and they will come out fighting after their loss against New Zealand today.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: GEORGIA 18-17 ITALY
There were joyous scenes at the AJ Bell Stadium as Georgia celebrated their first ever win at the U20 Championship, securing their place at the 2017 event by right and not simply because they will host the tournament.
The Junior Lelos turned in a commanding second-half display to overturn a 7-5 half-time deficit, reverting to type and using their formidable forward pack to get them over the line.
Georgia, the 2015 U20 Trophy winners, outscored Italy by three tries to two and were superbly led by scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze, who controlled play expertly at scrum-half and then later at fly-half after switching to first receiver in the latter stages of a well-contested match.
Italy started the brighter of the two winless sides, as they had done against higher ranked opponents in the pool stages, and tight-head prop Marco Riccioni went close after a well-worked lineout move on 15 minutes.
Shortly after, a powerful run by outside centre Giorgi Koshadze took the Junior Lelos into the Italian 22 for the first time in the match. Georgia kicked to the corner after Italy infringed at the breakdown and loose-head Tornike Mataradze burrowed his way over from the lineout drive.
Georgia had a second front-row try ruled out for a double movement and Italy were back on level terms when they profited from a driven lineout, Leonardo Mantelli converting Engjel Makelara’s try for a 7-5 half-time lead.
Under instruction from Lobzhanidze, Georgia elected to turn down two kicks at goal at the start of the second period, first kicking to the corner and then opting for the scrum as they attempted to turn the screw using their mighty pack, and after several re-sets Beka Gorgadze broke from the base and charged over for a try which again went unconverted.
Georgia’s fortunes in front of goal did not improve as replacement kicker Gela Aprasidze pulled a 62nd-minute penalty wide. The Junior Lelos had only managed to convert one of their five attempts at goal and those misses looked like they might be costly when Mantelli pulled three points back a few minutes later.
However, an illegal block on full-back Irakli Svanidze, as he attempted to gather his own chip, handed Aprasidze another opportunity and this time he made no mistake from a difficult angle to make the score 18-10.
The kick proved crucial as Italy ended the match one point adrift after a converted try from winger Luca Sperandio with the last play of the game. Italy for the third year in a row must win on the final day to avoid relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2017.
Georgia captain Vasil Lobzhanidze: “We are obviously very happy and it was a magnificent win for us. It is our first time participating in the World Rugby U20 Championship and we are very happy to get our first ever win in the tournament today. We are very excited that we are hosting the tournament next year, we knew we would be playing in it regardless. What we really wanted was to deservedly qualify for it and not only because we will be hosting it next year.”
Georgia coach Ilia Maisuradze: “I want to congratulate my team and the whole of Georgia because this is a very historic day for our country. We prepared well for the game and tried to correct some mistakes we had made in the previous three matches. The boys played really well in defence and had good discipline today. I am very happy for my team and for Georgian rugby. Every game you see we are progressing and today was a good performance. Italy were good and balanced but we were just oustanding in defence and then we could attack when the opportunities came.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: FRANCE 41-27 JAPAN
With so many talented runners in their side France will be asking questions as to why relegation from the U20 Championship was ever on the agenda.
Locked at 27-27 with Japan with just over a quarter to play, the prospect of an 11th place play-off against Italy on Saturday was still a possibility.
But France’s superior strength in depth was evident as tries from replacements Elias El Ansari and Christopher Kaiser finally killed off Japanese resistance.
Japan played a full part in a pulsating contest that began with a try for captain and flanker Masato Furukawa. For the only time in the match Taisetsu Kanai was able to add the conversion.
Quick thinking from livewire winger Gabriel Ngandebe rewarded France with their first try after a long spell of pressure inside the Japanese 22. Ngandebe, so impressive as a replacement against South Africa last time out, took a quick lineout and received the ball back before powering down the left flank for an opportunistic score.
France scored two more tries in the space of four minutes, the ever-dangerous Damian Penaud offloading to hooker Peato Mauvaka for the first before Antoine Dupont got on the end of a Baptiste Couilloud break.
Japan finished the half on top, however, and scored twice through flanker Faulua Makisi and giant winger Ataata Moeakiola, who collected a pinpoint cross-field kick from fly-half Taisetsu Kanai to dot down for the fifth time in the tournament.
Six more tries followed in the second half, the first going to Japan when good hands down the line gave full-back Takuhei Yamada an easy run in. Back came France with tries for Anthony Belleau and Alexandre Roumat, after more good work from Penaud in the build-up. Moeakiola’s second score brought Japan back on level terms but France found another gear to finally seal the win.
France captain Clement Castets: “The objective today was not to produce beautiful rugby but to get the win at the end of the game, so we are very proud of our performance. I would like to thank the Japanese team who played really well. We are going to play against Georgia at 100 per cent and we will see what happens. The objective again, of course, will be to win.”
Japan coach Ryuji Nakatake: “We are very disappointed. Today we were challenged a lot by France but our own mistakes made all the difference. We didn’t play at our maximum today. Once France were attacking they were unstoppable, but for our next game we need to improve on our defence.”
Main photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne