The race for the semi-final places is still wide open after the second day of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2017 in Georgia saw defending champions England, New Zealand and Australia claim their second victories, although none of the trio had it all their own way.
England momentarily wilted under Welsh pressure before emerging 34-22 winners at the Avchala Stadium to move onto 10 points in Pool A, one more than Australia after they battled to a 33-26 win against a sprited Samoan side.
Five-time champions New Zealand went behind after only a minute against Italy but scored nine tries to win 68-26 and remain top of Pool B. Scotland were equally impressive in the other match in Kutaisi, beating Ireland 32-28 in the opeing match at AIA Arena.
That was one of three matches decided by a single score, highlighting the competitive nature of this year's tournament. France were once again involved in a tense finale, although this time they were the ones scoring the try with time up to snatch a 26-25 win over Argentina. South Africa top Pool C, though, after overcoming Georgia 38-14.
The action continues on Thursday with the final round of pool matches. Scotland will face Italy in the first match in Kutaisi before New Zealand and Ireland go head to head. In Tbilisi, Wales and Samoa get proceedings underway before Argentina tackle South Africa, France meet Georgia and defending champions England take on Australia.
POOL A: AUSTRALIA 33-26 SAMOA
Three tries without reply in 12 second-half minutes gave Australia the momentum they needed to grind out a hard-fought victory against a Samoan side who had to settle for a losing bonus point at Avchala Stadium.
Australia had won 43-20 when the sides met at the Oceania Rugby U20 Championship in late April, but both line-ups were virtually unrecognisable this time around. Coming off their opening day loss to England, the Pacific Islanders started the match in determined mood and immediately put Australia on the back foot.
It was Australia, though, who opened the scoring through sevens star Henry Hutchison after 11 minutes. They had butchered one chance minutes earlier when, instead of heading for the corner, number eight Rob Valetini cut back towards the scrambling defence. Hutchison made no mistake, though, when quick hands saw the ball reach the winger in space out wide.
Harry Nucifora increased the lead to 8-0 with a penalty but Samoa's response was swift, the forwards showing great patience on the Australian line to go through the phases before spreading the ball wide for winger Tanielu Tele'a to cross in the corner. Hunter Paisami, who played for the Melbourne Rebels U20 side in the Super Rugby competition involving the Australian franchises earlier this year, added the conversion to cut the deficit to one point after 20 minutes.
Samoa's cause was not helped when fly-half Grayson Whitman was helped off just past the half-hour mark, but Australia then lost their own playmaker and captain Hamish Stewart to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle, Paisami making no mistake with the resulting penalty to give his side the lead for the first time at 10-8.
Paisami missed a penalty at the start of the second half, but Samoa still increased their advantage after the centre charged through the midfield with quick hands finding space for their Australian-born full-back Alexander Pohla to run in at the corner. They held that 15-10 lead for only six minutes, though, before Australia turned the ball over and spread it wide, centre Dylan Riley stepping off his right foot and pinning back his ears to race clear.
Another missed penalty from Paisami proved costly with Australia's response two tries inside five minutes, the first from another turnover saw replacement Sione Tuipulotu kick ahead for winger Semisi Tupou – the youngest player in the tournament who doesn't turn 18 until the end of the month – to gather and score his first try of the Championship.
Hutchison then turned provider on the hour mark, racing down the wing before offloading for his sevens team-mate Liam McNamara to run round under the posts and give Harrison Goddard an easy conversion for a 27-15 lead. That may have secured a crucial bonus point for Australia, but if they thought those quickfire tries had broken the Samoan resolve they were wrong, some slick passing seeing Pohla over for his second of the match.
Goddard added a penalty to give Australia a 10-point advantage with 10 minutes remaining, but once more Samoa showed tremendous heart to claw their way to within striking distance with two penalties from replacement Ricky Pauli Ene. They couldn't find the try they needed, though, and Australia march on to face defending champions England with their hopes of a first semi-final since 2011 alive.
Australia coach Simon Cron: "Samoa are amazing nation, a brilliant rugby playing nation. I knew it was going to be tough. These boys are under 20 and maybe some of them didn’t quite realise that. We made it clear during the week that this was going to be one of the toughest games that we’ve ever played. The Samoans were outstanding, absolutely brilliant."
Samoa coach Mahonri Schwalger: "We learned a lot from the England game so we went back to the drawing board and we knew that Australia would be a lot harder than the English team. We worked on our mistakes in our set-piece and defence but today we were not clinical enough, we had an opportunity but we didn’t take it and it sort of cost us the game."
POOL A: ENGLAND 34-22 WALES
Defending champions England remain unbeaten and top of Pool A, but only after surviving a second-half wobble against their neighbours Wales at Avchala Stadium.
England had looked on course for another comfortable victory in Georgia after establishing a 24-3 lead before half-time, but with prop Kieron Assiratti leading the charge the Welsh fought back to within seven as the champions' set-pieces fell apart. However, England captain Max Malins (main picture) steadied the ship and ensured his side move forward to the pool decider with Australia on Thursday.
With both sides wearing black armbands in honour of those affected by the events in London on Saturday, it was Wales who created the first opportunity. Fly-half Arwel Robson chipped over the defence to set up a race between the scrum-halves, the TMO ruling that England's Harry Randall, who played for Wales at U16 level, had beaten Dane Blacker to the touchdown. Wales earned a penalty from the resulting five-metre scrum and Robson made no mistake from in front of the posts to open the scoring.
That penalty, though, sparked England into life and a strong run from Zach Mercer created space for centre Max Wright, but he kept hold of the ball and was easily put into touch. It was only a temporary respite for Wales, though, as Ben Earl burst through a tackle and this time Wright did offload for second-row Justin Clegg to score and then two minutes later winger Gabriel Ibitoye spun in the tackle to dot down in the corner to give England a 14-3 lead.
Wales managed to stem the England attack briefly, but just before the half hour mark the dancing feet of Ibitoye created a third try in tight confines out wide. Malins curled in his second touchline conversion between the posts and then added a penalty after Welsh captain Will Jones was yellow-carded for putting his hands in the ruck to deny the champions quick ball.
With five minutes to go in the first half the lights went out at Avchala Stadium due to a temporary power failure, the teams heading back to the changing rooms before the match resumed after a 10-minute delay. The break clearly allowed Wales to regroup as with a minute to go to half-time Assiratti peeled around the front of the lineout to crash over, Robson landing the touchling conversion to make it 24-10.
Both sides created opportunities at the start of the second half, Wales safely grounding an England kick-through before winger Owen Lane raced down the left touchline deep into the 22. That break was the catalyst for a period of Welsh dominance as they dismantled England's scrum, replacement prop Ollie Dawe warned and then yellow-carded for bringing the scrum down.
England brought off Ibitoye to send Ralph Adams-Hale back on for the next scrum and when they collapsed the Welsh driving maul, referee Pierre Brousset awarded the penalty try – worth seven points under the global law trials being used in the tournament. Wales had their tails up with the deficit down to seven and England had their captain Malins to thank for that lead when he leapt to claim Robson's kick ahead of winger Jared Rosser in goal.
Malins was enjoying a night to savour in the No.10 jersey with commentators likening him to a young Jonny Wilkinson, but he uncharacteristically missed a penalty just before the hour mark that would have eased the pressure on the defending champions, whose set-piece was floundering under Welsh pressure.
He made amends, though, when he put up a kick that bounced awkwardly for the Welsh defence, allowing replacement Alex Mitchell to sneak in and spin around to touch the ball down against the base of the post with the try awarded after consultation with the TMO. Malins kicked the conversion and then slotted a drop goal to put daylight between the two sides one again.
This time, there was no way back for Wales, although they did have the final say when some great play from Callum Bradbury resulted in a try for his fellow replacement Joe Goodchild in the corner. Ben Jones missed the conversion to leave the score almost identical to that when the sides met in the Six Nations, England winning 37-21 that day in North Wales.
England captain Max Malins: "In our first game against Samoa we kind of had all our own way but we really didn’t in this game. We showed some really good fight and came out with the positive result and a bonus point so I couldn’t be happier. When the lights went off we tried to make sure we didn’t give them any chance in the five minutes (left in the first half) when we came out. Unfortunately, we did concede and that gave them the momentum going into the second half, but the boys managed to fight that, we reacted really well and we stuck at it."
Wales captain Will Jones: "England reacted to our mistakes, a few dropped balls, a few wingers who broke through and scored some points against us. It was a good comeback from the boys in the second half when we dominated the set piece. But as I said the English reacted very fast. We were switching off in crucial moments like in Australia game so we need to put some details right for the next game."
POOL B: IRELAND 28-32 SCOTLAND
Scotland produced a brilliant display of running rugby to beat Ireland for the first time in U20 Championship history and keep their hopes of a maiden semi-final appearance alive in the process.
Ross McCann, Fraser Renwick, Darcy Graham, Connor Eastgate and Robbie Nairn scored Scotland's tries at the AIA Arena with Ireland posting three of their own in a contest that flowed one way and then the other.
The action was every bit as sizzling as the 28 degree temperatures in Kutaisi as Scotland set about avenging their one-point loss to Ireland in the Six Nations by keeping ball in hand.
However, Ireland soaked up 15 minutes of pressure without conceding any points and it was the 2016 runners-up who built up a 10-point lead against the run of play when Conor Dean knocked over a 17th-minute penalty and then converted scrum-half Jack Stafford’s opportunist try from a quickly-taken tap-and-go.
Scotland responded with a contender for try of the championship when Ross McCann finished off a length-of-the-field move just before the half-hour mark featuring Eastgate, Stafford McDowall and Darcy Graham, who raced upfield and supplied the scoring pass.
While the Scottish backs were having fun in the sun, the forwards decided to get in on the act to score their second try on the stroke of half-time, through hooker Renwick, from a catch-and-drive.
Eastgate and Dean traded penalties at the start of the second half before Graham finished off another slick handling move in the corner. Ireland gained good territory from the restart and eventually the ball was worked into midfield where winger Jack Kelly took the ball at pace for a superb solo score. Alan Tynan’s conversion brought Ireland back to within two points.
Scotland wasted no time in regaining the initiative, though, with good work in the build-up from captain Callum Hunter-Hill resulting in a try for Eastgate. Tynan cut the lead to four with a 67th-minute penalty but Scotland’s adventurous approach was rewarded when Nairn finished off another slick handling move.
Still Ireland wouldn’t lie down, Kelly crossing for his second – and fourth of the Championship – after he shrugged off a high tackle to dot down in the corner.
Scotland refused to shut up shop in a bid to protect their four-point lead and a nervy finish ensued, but John Dalziel’s men held on to register their first win over Ireland at the sixth attempt on the U20 Championship stage.
Scotland captain Callum Hunter-Hill: "We're really happy. I am really proud of all the guys. We're still on course to do what we set out to do – win two games in our pool – and to get the bonus point as well made it even better. When you're absolutely knackered and you get up from a ruck and see guys like Darcy Graham and Ross McCann running down the wing, there's nothing better.
"We were confident after we played New Zealand. A lot of guys wrote us off before that game but we came out and played really well and probably could have won it. We said we'd come out and do exactly the same against Ireland, and we did that. We showed good composure at the end, we did a few pick-and-goes off nine and then stayed calm."
Ireland captain Paul Boyle: "Scotland are a good physical side and they just came out on top in the end. That's two losses in a row, but we believe we can regroup and beat New Zealand again."
POOL B: NEW ZEALAND 68-26 ITALY
New Zealand continued their perfect start to the U20 Championship in Georgia with a nine-try win against an Italian side that deservedly took many plaudits from the match at the AIA Arena in Kutaisi.
Winger Caleb Clarke scored twice and had a hand in several others, while impressive fly-half Tiaan Falcon kicked 19 points in the hour he was on the field.
Italy’s improvement from the Six Nations was again in evidence, though, as they complemented their traditional forward strength with some intelligent back play to fashion four tries and collect a bonus point.
The Azzurrini got off to the dream start when full-back Simone Cornelli plucked Braydon Ennor's pass out of the air on his own 22 and outsprinted Falcon in a race to the line.
Falcon kicked two penalties and then converted Will Jordan’s outstanding chip-and-chase try to ease New Zealand back into it, before Italy stunned the five-time champions by taking the lead for the second time through second-row Niccolo Cannone.
Italy hadn’t reckoned upon Clarke though. The winger was involved in a three-try salvo as New Zealand restored normal order. His midfield bust set up Orbyn Leger for a try before he scored himself after Isaia Walker-Leawere’s offload set him free.
In a match littered with individual moments of brilliance, Clarke’s next act was to prevent an Italian clearance finding touch while balancing on one leg. Clarke, the son of former All Black Eroni, clawed the ball back into play at full stretch to set up another devastating attack that ended in Jordan releasing winger Jonah Nareki down the right for the bonus point try.
Braydon Ennor added a fifth before Italy, to the delight of the crowd, brought the half to a close with a close-range score for flanker Michele Lamaro.
Italy started the second half brightly as they looked to chip away at the 39-21 deficit, but they lost the ball in contact on the opposition 22 and New Zealand turned defence into attack to devastating effect with the end result a second try for Clarke.
New Zealand’s vulnerability to the driving maul, a feature of their opening match against Scotland, saw them give away several penalties resulting in the loss of captain Luke Jacobson to the sin-bin for going in at the side. Italy cashed in with a bonus-point try for hooker Alberto Rollero.
Falcon’s third penalty of the match not only ate up some time while Jacobson was in the bin, it also saw New Zealand become the first side in the competition’s 10-year history to reach 2,000 points.
Tries were the only thing on New Zealand’s mind thereafter, though, and replacement Tamati Tua scored an absolute beauty in between efforts from rampaging prop Pouri Rakete-Stones and industrious flanker Adrian Choat, when he stepped the Italian defence on his own 22 before accelerating away and leaving everyone trailing in his wake.
New Zealand coach Craig Philpott: "It's good to play on a sunny day on good grass and the boys enjoyed themselves. Defensively we pride ourselves on protecting our line so we want to get better in that respect, but I guess we want to play some rugby too, and when you do that sometimes there is a bit of risk involved."
Italy captain Marco Riccioni: "We wanted to get a bonus point to move on to five points in our group and I'm happy we managed to do that. Maybe in the second half we relaxed and if you do that against New Zealand it makes it very hard. Scotland is now a very important game as we look to try and get second place. We know they are a good team but I can tell you we will only be going for the win."
POOL C: ARGENTINA 25-26 FRANCE
Four days ago France had suffered heartbreak when South Africa scored a last-gasp try to deny them victory, but this time it was Les Bleuets celebrating after replacement prop Peato Mauvaka was driven over with time up on the clock to snatch a 26-25 win over Argentina.
The match at Avchala Stadium had swung one way and then the other in the final 20 minutes and Argentina looked to have sealed it after a wonderful drop goal from replacement Tomas Albornoz with three minutes remaining.
However, flanker Agustin Medrano was sin-binned and France went for touch, winning the lineout and then driving around the side of Argentina’s defence to spark great celebrations on and off the pitch when referee Jamie Nutbrown awarded the try.
Argentina’s players were crestfallen at surrendering a win that would have taken them to within touching distance of the semi-finals.
Los Pumitas had won the meeting between the two teams in Manchester last year, but it was France who took an early lead this time with a fourth-minute penalty from their inspirational fly-half Romain Ntamack. It should have been cancelled out by Santiago Carreras but, having taken over the kicking duties from captain Tomas Malanos, he pulled a 10th minute penalty wide.
Argentina were enjoying the best of the play, some good work at the breakdown getting them quick ball and frustrating France, who lost flanker Alexandre Roumat to the sin-bin for a deliberate infringement, but Los Pumitas couldn’t capitalise with Carreras missing another kickable penalty. France then lost Ntamack to injury, forcing Alex Arrate to move in one to fly-half and he rattled the post with a penalty.
It looked as though the score would remain 3-0 to France until half-time, but then Arrate turned villain when he attempted to chip the defence, fly-half Juan Bautista Daireaux easily catching it to dance through the defence for the first try. The 7-3 lead was nothing more than Argentina deserved, but France came out a different side after half-time following some stern words from coach Philippe Boher.
Even so it was Los Pumitas who increased their lead to 14-3 when, having butchered one chance, they created an opening for Daireaux to score his second of the match. France then began the comeback, first with a try by winger Gabriel Ngandebe who won the race with Malanos to touch down, Arrate landing the conversion and a penalty to cut the deficit to one point with 20 minutes to go.
Les Bleuets lost a second player to sin-bin in Mauvaka for a dangerous tackle, but with captain Florian Verhaeghe leading from the front the signs were ominous for Argentina and replacement hooker Ugo Boniface scored in the corner. Arrate’s conversion came back off the upright but France were ahead again, although it didn’t last long as Staville reacted quickest to a lineout overthrow and Leonel Oviedo was driven over with help from his fellow replacement Nicolas Walker.
France weren’t fazed though and another Arrate kick edged them ahead 21-19, before Albornoz landed a penalty and his drop goal. It wasn't to be Argentina's day, though, as Mauvaka atoned for his early indiscretion by scoring the winning try.
Argentina captain Tomas Malanos: "We lost the match because of the number of penalties we made, the balls that we lost and the mistakes we made. But when we had the ball we did a lot of good things and scored the tries. The next game is going to be very difficult, we have to recover physically and mentally and prepare for South Africa."
France coach Philippe Boher: "Today it was a very important and tough game for us. Last year we lost against Argentina and didn’t qualify for the semi-finals so today we wanted to do our best to preserve the possibility to qualify. The game was very tough and the Argentinian players played great, fluent rugby. Our forwards did a good job in the second half in scrums and lineouts. It was a close game and both teams could have won at the end. We won and mentally it was very important for our boys to win such a tight game."
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 38-14 GEORGIA
South Africa’s backs relished the firm ground and sunny conditions in the Georgian capital to ruthlessly put their hosts to the sword in a game where they finished with 13 men on the field.
Four tries in a devastating 22-minute spell either side of half-time knocked the stuffing out of the Junior Lelos and silenced the partisan home crowd. Outside centre Wandisile Simelane and fly-half Manie Libbok shone with a brace of tries apiece, but there were superb performances across the board from a backline oozing with pace and sublime footwork.
A late yellow card to Hendre Stassen and the dismissal of Zain Davids in an off-the-ball incident which also saw Georgian flanker Tornike Jalagonia sin-binned was the only blot on the Junior Springboks’ copybook as tempers frayed near the end.
After a scrappy opening in which Jeanluc Cilliers and Gela Aprasidze both missed long range shots at goal, South Africa took the lead when number eight Juarno Augustus crashed over from close range with 17 minutes played.
The response from Georgia was superb as they set up camp in the South Africa 22 and it looked as though they had scored after 23 minutes when outstanding captain Ilia Spanderashvili took an inside ball at pace and crashed over. However, when it was referred to the TMO, it was decided that the last-ditch tackle from Manie Libbok had prevented the flanker grounding the ball cleanly.
Unperturbed, Georgia pressed on and a brilliant run down the right touchline by winger Davit Meskhi set up a try that was finished off from close range by prop Lasha Tabidze, one of two Junior Lelos already capped by the senior national side this year.
You could hear a pin drop when South Africa replied with two tries in as many minutes as half-time approached. Simelane danced his way over for a brilliant solo effort before try-saver Libbok showed off his footballing skills to score his side’s third try for a 19-7 half-time lead.
The game-changing moment came in the 50th minute when replacement prop Guram Gogichashvili was sin-binned for collapsing the scrum. South Africa scored 12 points while he was off the field, firstly through winger Yaw Penxe after soft hands from hooker Johan Grobbelaar, followed by Simelane’s second – a great team score from deep.
A show-and-go from Damian Willemse set up Libbok for his second on 70 minutes, not long after Georgian replacement Giorgi Gogoladze followed up a grubber kick from fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze to score under the posts. Georgia enjoyed all the territory and possession in the closing stages but South Africa’s defence held firm despite their numerical disadvantage.
South Africa coach Chean Roux: "We knew from the start it was going to be a tough game in front of the passionate crowd here in Tbilisi, but our boys stuck it out. It was a tremendous fight up in front and I’m proud of the character the boys showed in defence. We expected them (Georgians) to slow the game down, like they did with pick and gos, scrums and mauls. We’ll take this win and move on to the next game."
Georgia coach Ilia Maisuradze: "We knew that the South Africans were a physical side. They are noticeably bigger than us and they play a very high level of rugby back home. We knew they would try to dominate us up front and then play wide. We handled them in first half an hour but lost the grip in next four-five minutes and our opponent punished us. I think we should have played more tight rugby and stuck with our game plan, but suddenly the boys chose to play expansive rugby and we got punished for that. We were unable to handle such pace. Now we have to analyse and take positive conclusions from these two matches."
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