The opening day of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 was full of twists and turns with the future stars of world rugby putting on a show of running rugby for fans in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and around the globe.
Defending champions England kicked off proceedings at Avchala Stadium with a 74-17 win over the returning Samoa, while five-time champions made a winning start to their campaign, beating Scotland 42-20 at AIA Arena in Kutiasi.
Argentina battled past a Georgian side roared on by a passionate home crowd to win 36-27 and top Pool C after South Africa and France played out the first draw in the tournament's history, Curwin Bosch's last-gasp conversion breaking French hearts and levelling the scores at 23-23.
The final match of the day at Avchala Stadium was also settled at the death with Australia emerging the 24-17 winners over Wales.
It was left to Italy, therefore, to provide the shock result of day one with a 22-21 defeat of 2016 runners-up Ireland in their Pool B encounter in Kutaisi.
The action continues on Sunday with the second round of matches. Ireland will face Scotland in the first match in Kutaisi before the two day one winners, New Zealand and Italy, go head to head. In Tbilisi, Argentina and France get proceedings underway before Australia tackle Samoa, South Africa meet hosts Georgia and defending champions England take on Wales.
POOL A: ENGLAND 74-17 SAMOA
England sent out an early warning of their intention to win a fourth title in five years with a clinical display against Samoa, scoring 12 tries for a 74-17 victory at Avchala Stadium in the Georgian capital.
It took England only three minutes to cross the line when they spread the ball wide for winger Ali Crossdale to dive over and a yellow card for Samoa's Losi Filipo minutes later didn't help their cause.
England made them pay with tries from captain Zach Mercer, fly-half Max Malins (main picture) – promoted from the bench before kick-off after Theo Brophy-Clews was ruled out – and Alex Mitchell with the bonus point wrapped up inside 22 minutes.
Full-back Ricky Pauli Ene landed his second penalty attempt to get Samoa on the board, but Englnad weren't done yet with centre Dominic Morris charging through before Mercer and impressive winger Gabriel Ibitoye made it 43-3 at half-time.
England didn't let up in the second half with prop Marcus Street dotting down following a driving maul, before Crossdale scored his second, despite appearing to pull his hamstring in the build up.
Another Samoan sin-bin proved costly with second-row Ciaran Knight the player to profit from another England drive, but despite being a man down the U20 Trophy 2016 winners scored their first try through Filipo, replacement Pupi Ah See having been ruled held up only minutes earlier.
Morris and Ibitoye grabbed their second tries of the game, the former limping off with injury after his try, before Samoa finished strongly with Filipo dotting down a second try to give them confidence to take into the next match with Australia.
England captain Zach Mercer: "We had to focus on the first 20 minutes against a real passionate Samoan side. It was the first time the boys faced the haka (Siva Tau). We knew Samoa was going to fire hard for the first 20 so we needed to weather the storm effectively and the boys did that. I’m very proud of boys. We know we got a comfortable win in an 80-minute performance. Now we are looking forward to playing Wales on Sunday."
Samoa head coach Mahonri Schwalger: "We have to look at our kicking game. Today we didn’t have enough ball to play with and we spent a lot of time trying to defend. Other than that when we had ball we looked pretty good but there were a lot of mistakes in decision-making. For the next game we have to improve our decision-making."
POOL A: AUSTRALIA 24-17 WALES
Australia left it late to snatch victory over Wales, centre Izaia Perese bursting through the defence once again to cap an impressive display with the winning score for his side to leave them second in Pool A behind defending champions England.
The Australians may have filled their team with Super Rugby players and sevens stars, but it was Wales who took a fifth-minute lead after an audacious offload off the deck by their hooker Ellis Shipp to send centre Cameron Lewis over.
Wales fly-half Arwel Robson added the conversion but missed a penalty attempt to increase his side's lead 10 minutes later. Australia then had sevens player Simon Kennewell sin-binned for a dangerous tackle, but rather than concede points they opened their own account in his absence when scrum-half Harrison Goddard landed his second of two penalty attempts.
Australia turned over a Welsh scrum and were rewarded when they worked the ball through the hands and quickly recycled possession for Henry Hutchison to go over in the corner, Goddard's conversion making it 10-7 in his side's favour.
It could have been even better for Australia but, with the clock in the red, former HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Rookie of the Year Hutchison looked set to score in the same corner, only to lose the ball in the tackle as he dived over the line.
The score remained that way until the 56th minute, Robson having missed a penalty attempt to draw Wales level, with neither side able to get on top until the Welsh wheeled a scrum for number eight James Botham - the grandson of former England cricketer Ian - to pick up and charge down the wing before offloading to send scrum-half Dane Blacker over.
However, the lead lasted barely two minutes as Australia hit back following a good break down the left wing by replacement Semisi Tupou, the youngest player in the tournament who doesn't turn 18 until 29 June. They recycled the ball and went through a few phases before replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes dived through a gap.
Robson attempted a penalty from his own half with 10 minutes to go but fell well-short, however the fly-half made no mistake with a drop goal attempt to tie the scores at 17-17 with three minutes to go. Unfortunately for Wales, just as they had done after Blacker's try, they handed the advantage back to Australia with Perese darting through a gap in the defence to score the winning try.
Australia captain Reece Hewat: "It was a very hard game, both teams played the full 80. Our overall execution has to become better for the next game. We dropped far too many balls, did a loose play or loose carries. We got to fix that and turn up to the next game."
Wales captain Will Jones: "It's tough to take because we played some great stuff, but we just switched off at crucial times. A simple example is when it was 17-17, after our drop goal, that try was a result of slipping off tackles. We just need to execute and be clinical not to give away silly penalties. We definitely have to work on the contact areas and we have to move on to the next game, which is a must-win for us."
POOL B: NEW ZEALAND 42-20 SCOTLAND
Left winger Tima Faingaanuku scored a hat-trick as New Zealand kicked off their campaign with a bonus-point win against battling Scotland at the AIA Arena in Kutaisi.
The five-time champions scored three tries in each half but they will be looking to improve in several key areas ahead of Sunday’s match against Italy. Most worrying for coach Craig Philpott will be their high penalty count, poor restart work and the way they struggled to deal with Scotland’s mauls.
Faingaanuku looked every bit like All Black Julian Savea when he powered down the left wing with only three minutes gone to hand New Zealand a dream start. Tiaan Flacon landed a sublime touchline conversion before tries from the respective hookers, Fraser Renwick and Asafo Aumua, took the score to 12-10 in New Zealand’s favour.
Scotland scored again when they turned down several shots at goal inside New Zealand's 22 and Darcy Graham sped between a gap following a series of pick-and-goes from the forwards. New Zealand’s dominant scrum then laid the platform for the final try of the first half, Faingaanuku taking the ball at pace to finish off a well-worked, first phase move.
Connor Eastgate replaced the out-of-sorts Blair Kinghorn as Scotland’s kicker and he traded penalties with Falcon before flanker Dalton Papali'i blasted through Callum Hunter-Hill’s attempted tackle to grab the all-important fourth try to secure the bonus point. New Zealand added another after Scotland over-played their hand inside their own 22 and gifted possession to Falcon, who put Orbyn Leger on a clear run to the line.
Brilliant turnover work from Tim Farrell and Ereatara Enari twice prevented Scotland scoring against 14 men following a yellow card to Papali'i, but they eventually cracked when Kinghorn atoned for his errant goal-kicking with a brilliant breakout that led to a try for replacement Josh Henderson, which he converted.
New Zealand fell short of posting a half century of points on Scotland for a third time at this level, but they finished on a high when Falcon picked out the unmarked Faingaanuku for his hat-trick score with a crossfield kick.
New Zealand captain Luke Jacobson: "We are really happy to come out with this first win and to get the bonus point. We learnt from last year how important bonus points are in this tournament. I was pleased with the way we attacked them in their half and put them under a lot of pressure. A key work-on for us will be discipline. We gave away far too many penalties which put us under the pump and they got a few good lineout drives on us too."
Scotland captain Callum Hunter-Hill: "I’m really proud of the boys. I think we showed a really spirited performnance and that we are ready to compete at this level. I think a lot of people wrote us off before the game, but we were right up there for 50 minutes. We just need to be clinical and composed when we get opportunities and put in a complete 80-minute performance."
POOL B: IRELAND 21-22 ITALY
Italy won their first pool match for three years as they avenged a one-point loss to Ireland in the Six Nations to win by a similarly tight margin in the most dramatic of circumstances.
The Azzurrini have not won at this stage of the World Rugby U20 Championship since upsetting Argentina in 2014, but tries from prop Danilo Fischetti and Jacopo Bianchi put them in command at 15-3 ahead at half-time.
However, Ireland came out a different side after the break and a quickfire double from left winger Calvin Nash looked like setting them on the road to a hard-fought victory until full-back Massimo Cioffi converted his own try to hand the Azzurrini the narrowest of leads with three minutes left.
Ireland still had a chance to break Italian hearts, but Ciaran Frawley’s penalty attempt sailed just wide with the clock in the red.
With Antonio Rizzi pulling the strings at fly-half, Italy dominated the first half and were well worth their 12-point lead. While their first try by loose-head prop Fischetti was all to do with brawn, the second, created by fly-half Antonio Rizzi’s delicate chip over the top, was a thing of beauty. Cioffi gathered the ball cleanly and offloaded to flanker Bianchi who hardly broke stride on his way to the line.
Conor Dean finally got Ireland on the board when he slotted a 27th-minute penalty but Rizzi cancelled that out with a 35-metre drop goal.
Nash’s two tries and a conversion from Dean pulled Ireland level before two penalties from the fly-half eased them in front.
Italy showed great composure, though, to produce one last sustained attack. Centre Marco Zanon used his pace to get on the outside of Dean and link up with Cioffi, who had two grabs of the ball before getting it under control and dotting down. The full-back’s touchline conversion looked to be drifting wide of the upright but, at the very last minute, it wobbled back on course to hand the Italians the initiative.
The Azzurrini attempted to wind the clock down with a series of pick-and-goes but Bianchi was penalised for holding on, on his own 10-metre line, handing Frawley a last-gasp opportunity, which he narrowly failed to take.
While Ireland, last year’s beaten finalists, went in the game missing several key players through injury, nobody can take anything away from what was a wonderful performance by Italy.
POOL C: ARGENTINA 37-26 GEORGIA
Classy scrum-half Matias Sauze scored a superb solo try and set up another to inspire Argentina to a bonus-point win against a Georgian side that competed strongly from first whistle to last, much to the delight of the home crowd at the Avchala Stadium.
Sauze marshalled his forwards to good effect and was a constant threat around the base in a match where his opposite number Gela Aprasidze also caught the eye in kicking four first-half penalties, two from inside his own half.
Los Pumitas managed three first-half tries through test-capped back-row Martin Kremer, hooker Jose Gonzalez and number eight Santiago Ruiz, but with fly-half Tomas Albornoz only able to adds the extras to one and Aprasidze taking all his opportunities, there were only five points separating the teams at the break.
Backed by a stiff breeze, Albernoz made sure with two penalty attempts at the start of the second half as Argentina threatened to pull clear. A sniping run from Sauze, converted by Albernoz, put last year’s bronze medallists 30-12 up, but the Junior Lelos’ never-say-die spirit was rewarded when Giorgi Kveseladze took a pop pass from fellow replacement Giorgi Gogoladze to score near the posts.
Bautista Stavile stormed to the line after taking a well-executed switch pass from Sauze to settle Argentinean nerves, before replacement prop Ushangi Tcheishvili had the vociferous home crowd on their feet with Georgia’s second try in the 71st minute. Georgia pressed hard to claim the losing bonus point as time ticked on but Argentina successfully defended a 15-phase move at the death to keep the gap at 11 points.
Argentina captain Tomas Malanos: "It was a tough, physical game but a really good result for us. We made a lot of mistakes and conceded a lot of penalties and that complicated this match for us, but we won and top our group. Now we start to think about France and correcting our mistakes."
Georgia captain Ilia Spanderashvili: "We did our best but came up just short. It was really good to get the opportunity to play against such a great rival in our own country."
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 23-23 FRANCE
South Africa played their get out of jail card to escape with the first draw in the World Rugby U20 Championship pool stages, although it needed fly-half Curwin Bosch to hold his nerve and convert number eight Juarno Augustus' try with time up on the clock at the Avchala Stadium to break French hearts.
The two teams had served up a nine-try thriller in the pool stages last year and while this was a different type of match with heavy rain failing at times in the Georgian capital, there was still plenty of tension with South Africa battering the French defence until it finally broke.
France had looked on course for their first U20 Championship win over South Africa at the fifth attempt having led 23-13 after 54 minutes thanks to a second drop goal from Romain Ntamack, their young fly-half's performance so composed it was easy to forget he only turned 18 at the beginning of this month.
However, the fly-half was replaced with 15 minutes to go and South Africa began to launch wave after wave of attack at the French defence. It held firm initially with South Africa only able to add two penalties through the boot of their Super Rugby star Bosch, but then repeated infringements near their own line saw referee Nic Berry send flanker Baptiste Pesenti to the sin-bin.
With their extra man, South Africa's pack were never going to let the ball leave their clutches and after a few phases it was Augustus who powered over for his second try of the match, having earlier given the Junior Springboks the perfect start with a try with barely a minute on the clock.
Bosch kicked a penalty to make it 10-0 to South Africa, but a delay from scrum-half Rewan Kruger saw his kick charged down by Romain Buros and the full-back scored. France continued to cause problems for South Africa, who lost winger Wandisile Simelane to the sin-bin for a deliberate trip. With barely 30 seconds to go for Simelane, South Africa were reduced to 13 men with prop Gerhard Steenekamp yellow-carded and France pounced, hooker Florian Dufour driven over after the defence splintered around a maul.
France took a 12-10 lead into half-time and within a minute of the restart they had a third try through Couilloud, the scrum-half receiving a pass from number eight Charlie Francoz from the base of scrum and powering his way through the defence to go over in the corner. Bosch cut the deficit with a penalty but two composed drop goals from Ntamack gave Les Bleuets some breathing space.
Utlimately, though, France were to be denied their historic victory which would undoubtedly have given their senior team a boost ahead of their tour to South Africa for three tests next month.
South Africa coach Chean Roux: "The team showed a great character. This is something that we have spoken about during the tournament, what's going to happen if we are behind in the last 10 minutes, and then the conditioning actually put us through it. They’ve been a better side and I think that was the difference between losing the game and drawing the game. Now it’s up to us to win the next two games."
France coach Philippe Boher: "The boys knew that this Springbok team was very tough and at the beginning of this game they were afraid to run with the ball. At the same time there has been a problem with weather, a lot of rain and wind against us, so it was hard to play at that moment. After we played the conditions and ball better it was very good. At the end, one minute before, we got the ball, one of our boys drew a big mistake, fell on a ruck and they got the ball and scored. It’s a big team – South Africa. We could win, but we’ll see next game."