France endured a nervous wait before they were able to celebrate only their third appearance in the World Rugby U20 Championship semi-finals, their place only confirmed when England captain Zach Mercer turned over the ball with the clock several minutes into the red to seal a 20-19 win over Australia in their Pool A decider.
Defending champions England had hit the front with two minutes remaining thanks to a Max Malins penalty, the fly-half making no mistake after Australia's replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle.
Australia knew that a losing bonus point wasn't enough for them to progress to the semi-finals as the best runner-up and threw everything into winning the restart. They managed to tip it back and went through countless phases to finally make their way into the 22, but with England not committing men to the tackle they couldn't find a way through and it was inevitable that it would be Mercer coming to England's rescue.
France's reward is a meeting with New Zealand after the five-time champions beat Ireland 69-3 to not only finish top of Pool B but also claim the top seeding for the semi-finals with a maximum 15 points. The other semi-final pits England against South Africa, who produced the performance of the tournament so far with an incredible 72-14 defeat of Argentina to top Pool C.
Australia can now finish no higher than fifth and will meet Italy on match-day four after the Azzurrini sneaked into the top eight by virtue of South Africa scoring an 11th try against Argentina at the death. That win meant Argentina's point difference slipped before Italy and they will play Georgia in the ninth place semi-final, needing a win to guarantee their place in the U20 Championship next year.
The other fifth place semi-final is an all-European affair between Wales and Scotland, who were both winners today in contrasting fashion against Samoa (54-20) and Italy (17-16) respectively. Ireland will meet Samoa in the other ninth place play-off.
POOL A: WALES 54-20 SAMOA
Wales signed off from the pool stages with an emphatic seven-try victory over Samoa in the opening match at Avchala Stadium to ensure their place in the World Rugby U20 Championship and condemn their opponents to another battle to avoid relegation to the second-tier U20 Trophy for next year.
It was Samoa, however, who made the better start and were unlucky not to score in the second minute when centre Hunter Paisami intercepted and raced clear. Wales scrambled back and managed to isolate Paisami to win the penalty and the chance to clear their lines. They did fall behind to two penalties from full-back Ricky Pauli Ene inside the opening 10 minutes in the Georgian capital.
Samoa made another dangerous break, but Wales were able to steal the ball and quickly spread it wide to Jared Rosser with the winger racing in from 50 metres, fly-half Ben Jones adding the conversion to give his side the lead for the first time in this meeting of the two winless teams in Pool A. Second-row Julius Togafau went close to scoring another try for Samoa, but once again they were punished when the Welsh dominance in the scrum.
Wales messed up their first drive, but given a second opportunity made no mistake with number eight Aled Ward picking up from the base early and reaching out for the line. Samoa again worked another attack but were penalised for being offside near the Welsh line and the loss of Paisami after a head knock was a blow the Pacific islanders could ill afford.
The Welsh pounced with two more tries to wrap up the bonus point before half-time, first flanker Shane Lewis-Hughes got his name on the scoreboard and then second-row Sean Moore from another powerful drive. to make it 28-6 in favour of the the 2013 runners-up. That lead grew with a fifth try in the 49th minute, scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams making a break from a scrum and Lewis-Hughes managing to force the ball down for his second try.
Alexander Pohla had scored twice against Australia and was at it again in spectacular fashion, racing down the left touchline, handing off two Welsh defenders and keeping his balance to then step and go over in the left corner just before the hour mark. Samoa scored a second try 10 minutes later after replacement prop Setu Enoka went over from close range to cut the deficit to 33-20.
That was as close as Samoa would get, though, as Wales scored three tries in the final 10 minutes with some slick passing resulting in tries for replacement scrum-half Dane Blacker and then Will Griffiths before winger Joe Goodchild snuck in for a try with time up on the clock, putting the finishing touch on a job well down for the young Dragons.
Wales captain Will Jones: "I think we showed against England that our scrum is very strong, our set piece is very strong, so in the first half we knew that we had a dominant set-piece against Samoa and we really attacked it and we got a few tries and a few penalties from it. That performance and the bonus point before half-time gave us a massive confidence and now we’re just waiting for other results."
Samoa captain Ivan Fepuleai: "We came here to win just like any other team. In the first 10 minutes we started very well, we had a lot of opportunities but we just couldn’t take them. The Welsh defence was very good, they brought their line speed up and we just couldn’t stick to our patterns and structures and everything sort of fell apart for us. We’re going to regroup and hopefully come away with a win from this tournament."
POOL A: ENGLAND 20-19 AUSTRALIA
England's steely determination came to the fore with a strong second-half performance enough for the defending champions to battle past Australia and finish the pool stages with three wins from three, although only after a late match-winning penalty from fly-half Max Malins.
Australia had only beaten England once before in U20 Championship history – in the 2010 semi-finals in Argentina – but they came out in determined fashion seeking to win a second in the sixth meeting between the nations, taking the lead in the second minute thanks to a penalty by scrum-half Harrison Goddard after the English scrum had gone down.
Theo Brophy-Clews cancelled out that effort six minutes later, but the response from Australia was instant as they continued to play at a fast pace, building through the phases before Harrison Hockings found Sione Tuipulotu on his outside and there was no stopping the centre from close range. Goddard added the conversion and another penalty as Australia continued to pile the pressure on the defending champions.
Tuipulotu should have had a second try before the first quarter was out after flanker Liam Wright charged up field, but he made a mess of the pass to his supporting runner and England were able to escape, albeit only temporarily with Goddard adding a third penalty as England were again pressurised into indiscipline to make it 16-3 after 22 minutes.
England needed a score and quickly to settle and when it came it was something special. Scrum-half Harry Randall made a break down the middle before Australia hauled him down, but the ball was recycled and swung to the left, finding winger Gabriel Ibitoye who, despite the tackle of Henry Hutchison taking him over the touchline, managed to reach around and dot the ball down for a try.
Malins curled in the conversion to cut the deficit to six and it remained that way to half-time after Goddard missed with a penalty attempt from halfway.
England emerged a different force in the second half and almost made the immediate breakthrough when flanker Dino Lamb charged through the Australian defence, only for fly-half Hamish Stewart to chase him down and dislodge the ball as he tackled him from behind. The try, though, did eventually come in the 52nd minute after Stewart's kick was charged down, forcing a five-metre scrum for England.
Australia managed to repel the initial attack as full-back Tom Parton lost the ball in a tackle by his opposite number Liam McNamara, but referee Mike Adamson was playing an advantage and they made no mistake from the resulting lineout, prop Marcus Street eventually being driven over the line to put his side ahead for the first time at 17-16.
Malins missed with a drop goal attempt on the hour mark but England were still in the ascendency with Australia barely able to get into the champions' 22. That was why on a rare foray they would have been dismayed to see replacement scrum-half Harry Nucifora – whose uncle David masterminded that 2010 win over England – pull a 68th-minute penalty wide.
Nucifora got a chance to redeem himself with seven minutes to go, but needed the upright to send his second penalty through the posts to edge Australia again once ahead. There was to be one final twist, though, with Malins proving England's match-winner and meaning Australia miss out on the best runner-up place in semi-finals to France.
England captain Zach Mercer: "The boys showed a really good character against a world-class Australia. We dug deeper, we’ve done it throughout the Six Nations and we’ve done it now. That victory we’re going to take positives from it but we’re going to take our next step into the semi-final so that’s probably as tough as the semi-final is going to be so we are looking forward to it."
Australia captain Reece Hewat: "It's very disappointing. It was definitely the discipline at the end of day. You can’t win a rugby game if you keep getting penalised, especially in such a tight game. Any little penalty, especially in your half, you have got such a quality kicker from England so they’re going to nail these kicks."
POOL B: SCOTLAND 17-16 ITALY
Robbie Nairn put an embarrassing blooper behind him to score a try and prevent another as Scotland sealed second place in Pool B with a tense win over Italy at the AIA Arena in Kutaisi, winning two matches in the pool stages for the second time in a row.
Having dropped the ball over the line to squander a certain try in the early throes of the first half, the big Harlequins winger responded with a superb finish minutes later before making a crucial intervention in defence late on just as Dario Schiabel seemed certain to score.
By common consensus this is the best Italian team to have graced the U20 Championship and Scotland had to dig deep to come out on top.
Coach John Dalziel’s side came out firing, as they had done in their win over Ireland in round two, and looked to have posted five points when Blair Kinghorn put Nairn on a clear run to the line. Nairn opted to hold the ball in one hand and, to his utter dismay, the ball slipped from his grasp as he crossed the try-line.
With 80 per cent of the possession and a similar amount of territory it would not be long before Scotland had another chance. Darcy Graham floated out a pass to his fellow winger Nairn, who picked up the ball on the Italian 22, cut inside one defender and then shrugged off two others to atone for his earlier error.
Like his midfield partner Schiabel, Marco Zanon enjoyed a fine game for the Azzurrini and he got his side back on level terms when he cut a great angle and charged over after taking Charly Trussardi’s pass. Antonio Rizzi slotted the simple conversion, but straight from the restart, Scotland put the pressure back on Italy and Luke Crosbie went through an unguarded ruck to score from 10 metres out.
After winger Giovanni D’Onofrio came within inches of scoring, Rizzi kicked a penalty to close the gap to 12-10 at the break.
With Scotland unable to find any rhythm, Italy dominated the third quarter and two further penalties from Rizzi gave them a 16-12 lead. The fly-half, though, blotted his copybook when he flew out of defence to intercept replacement Josh Henderson’s pass and was penalised by referee Nic Berry. Scotland kicked to the corner and number eight Tom Dodd dotted down under a pile of bodies from the resulting catch-and-drive.
Schiabel started and nearly finished a fine handling move after he’d forced a turnover on the Italian 10-metre line but Nairn got across to force the centre into touch. Rizzi had one last chance to snatch it for Italy when they were awarded a penalty with 70 seconds to go, but the diminutive fly-half decided it was outside his range and went for touch instead. Italy won the lineout but Matt Fagerson stole the ball off Giovanni Licata and Scotland made their way upfield before the ball went dead and Berry called time.
Scotland coach John Dalziel: "Italy have been one of the surprise packages at this Junior World Cup and we've followed their progress in the first two games. They made it very tough for us. We are just pleased with the win but we know that we have got a lot of work to do before the next game. We knew we'd be in for a battle today but we put ourselves under a lot of pressure today with unforced errors."
Italy captain Marco Riccioni: "We had a very tough opponent today and I want to congratulate Scotland. We had a lot of opportunities but unfortunately we just threw them away. It is sad, because it feels like we have a very strong and confident team. We are a strong team, so we will definitely recover to win our next game in Tbilisi."
POOL B: NEW ZEALAND 3-69 IRELAND
Caleb Clarke and Will Jordan both scored hat-tricks as New Zealand handed out a lesson in finishing to an Ireland side that simply had no answer at AIA Arena in Kutaisi.
Defensively New Zealand were outstanding too, prop Alex Fidow and flanker Tom Christie leading the way in the tackle count as Ireland’s attacks around the fringes repeatedly floundered against the black wall.
Having already qualified for the semi-finals following bonus-point wins over Scotland and Italy, New Zealand knew they needed another big win to make certain of top seed status and they wasted no time in exorcising the memory of last year’s shock defeat to Ireland in Manchester.
After conceding three points from a Conor Fitzgerald penalty, Craig Philpott’s side had the bonus point sewn up after just 23 minutes, Clarke getting the first after an arcing 45-metre run saw him outstrip the Irish defence.
Centre Braydon Ennor had a hand in both of Jordan’s two first-half tries and scored one himself before Clarke took New Zealand into a 31-3 lead at the break with his second of the match.
The five-time champions scored at the start of the second half when Christie peeled off the back of a maul and strolled through a gap where the blindside defence should have been, and try number seven followed when a powerful bust up the middle by hooker Asafo Aumua set up scrum-half Ereatara Enari.
With second-row duo Isaia Walker-Leawere and Sam Caird both in the sin-bin for illegally stopping an Irish maul, New Zealand found themselves down to 13 men midway through the second half. However, they stood firm in defence and even extended their lead, Clarke running in to complete his hat-trick from 30 metres out.
Replacement Josh McKay scored another before Ireland second-row Gavin Coombes was given a yellow card for a deliberate trip on Jordan. In his absence fly-half Tiaan Falcon added a try to his seven conversions before Jordan rounded off an excellent display with his third following another superb offload from Walker-Leawere.
New Zealand captain Luke Jacobson: "We're really happy to come out and put in a performance like that, especially as we still had a lot of hard feelings over what happened last year (the loss to Ireland). That was a tough one to swallow. Defence was a huge focus of ours today and we're delighted to not concede a try. Now our focus is on the big game in front of us."
Ireland coach Peter Malone: "Credit to New Zealand, it was a super performance and they fully deserved their victory. We couldn't live with them. We thought we'd try and upset them with our line speed but we didn't. We're disappointed. We thought we'd give it a good crack and might get a bit closer, but it was all about New Zealand today. Next week will be a massive game for us against whoever we are playing. Results have been disappointing, but we're a good group and we have worked hard and I think the guys will be able to regroup and get themselves mentally right."
POOL C: FRANCE 54-0 GEORGIA
After tense finishes in their first two matches at the Avchala Stadium, France had the luxury of knowing that they had won this match and had the crucial bonus point in the bag by half-time.
Les Bleuets scored four converted tries before the break and doubled their tally in the second half on a frustrating day for hosts Georgia, who had made wholesale changes to their team in the knowledge they could do no better than fourth in the pool. As a result, despite France making almost twice as many tackles the Junior Lelos rarely looked like breaching their defence.
Baptiste Couilloud got the scoring underway with just three minutes gone after good mauling play from the forwards sucked in defenders and created space for the backs to exploit, Matthieu Jalibert combining with Nathan Decron to allow the scrum-half an easy stroll to the line.
Shortly afterwards loose-head prop Ugo Boniface charged over from 12 metres out following more good interchange play between backs and forwards. Fellow front-row Peato Mauvaka added his name to the scoresheet after 11 minutes as France refused to take their foot off the gas against their hosts.
A surging run and reverse pass from full-back Geoffrey Cros sliced open the Junior Lelos' defence once again and allowed Jalibert to score the bonus-point try two minutes before the interval, the fly-half keeping his perfect record intact by kicking his fourth conversion for a 28-0 half-time lead.
A sublime offload from the impressive Mauvaka handed Dacron a try on a plate nine minutes after the restart and France pulled further ahead when number eight Selevasio Tolofua went over from close range.
Georgia then enjoyed their best period in the match but without creating any real clear try-scoring opportunities. Left winger Saba Svimonishvili looked their most dangerous weapon but the Natal Sharks academy player was left to feed off scraps.
Hard-working flanker Alexandre Roumat got in the act on 65 minutes as France continued to pile on the points, and replacement Baptiste Pesenti’s stoppage time try ensured they brought up the half-century.
France captain Florian Verhaeghe: "We were preparing for a very tough match. At the start we met a good opposition from the Georgians but then we felt that we were on the right way, kept going and secured a victory. We wish the Georgians a good a performance in the next stages in order to retain the place in this tournament."
Georgia head coach Ilia Maisuradze: "As we knew we would finish fourth we were focused on the fourth match and that's why we changed our roster and gave opportunity to other players. In comparison to the previous two games we tried to play wider defence but we made a lot of individual mistakes, missed many tackles, didn’t cover from inside and when the French increased the tempo we had serious difficulties. In attack we tried to keep the ball as long as possible but the main problem was to cross the gain-line. The French outclassed us in components."
POOL C: ARGENTINA 14-72 SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa produced a masterclass of attacking rugby to confirm their place in the semi-finals as Pool C winners, scoring tries from anywhere on the Avchala Stadium pitch to record their biggest win over Argentina in U20 Championship history.
Los Pumitas had beaten South Africa twice en route to finishing third in Manchester last year, but the writing was on the wall when the Junior Springboks came storming out of the blocks, Curwin Bosch missing a penalty before two tries in four minutes from hooker Johan Grobbelaar – the second a gift after an overthrown lineout landed in his arms with the try-line in front of him – made it 12-0 after only 10 minutes.
Argentina managed to halt the charge when the TMO ruled that centre Felix Luna had managed to ground the ball, South Africa losing winger Wandisile Simelane to the sin-bin for a deliberate trip earlier in the move. But the Junior Springboks made light work of their man disadvantage with winger Gianni Lombard going in at the corner to punish Argentina's decision to try to run the ball out from deep in their own 22.
It looked as though Argentina simply had to score a second try but they cut inside rather than use the overlap out wide and the chance had gone. They then lost their impressive flanker Bautista Staville to injury, but did manage to get the try just past the half hour when quick hands sent captain Tomas Malanos over in the corner, Tomas Albornoz converting to cut the deficit to 19-14.
However, that was as close as Argentina came to the victory they needed to keep their semi-finals hopes alive as two tries saw South Africa wrap up the bonus point and put some daylight between the two teams. First centre Damiam Willemse ran onto Lombard's kick to touch down and then winger Yaw Penxe was the beneficiary of a passing move from a quick tap by scrum-half Embrose Papier to make it 31-14.
Argentina coach Gaston Conde sent on Franco Molina at half-time but he lasted only 15 seconds before he was back on the sidelines following a yellow card for a dangerous tackle and in his absence South Africa turned up the heat even further, scoring two tries. First number eight Juarno Augustus powered over for his fourth try of the tournament and then, after he had slotted a penalty, Bosch put through a kick which the defence failed to gather and Lombard was in for a double.
South Africa weren't done, though, and were intent on showcasing their attacking prowess to send a message to whoever they will face in the semi-finals. They were in again after another break by Lombard, who combined well with Bosch and Papier to send the latter over for the try, although the scrum-half, Bosch and full-back Manie Libbok dotted the ball down together.
That score took the 2012 champions through the 50-point mark and they nearly had another two minutes later, but replacement prop Gerhard Steenekamp saw his barrelling effort ruled out for a knock-on earlier in the move. South African fans would still have three more tries to celebrate before Argentina were put out of their misery by the final whistle.
First Libbok got his name among the try-scorers and then replacement scrum-half Francois de Villiers charged from the back of the scrum and slalomed his way through the defence to touch down. Then it was left to Bosch to send a perfectly weight cross-field kick from a penalty into the arms of replacement JeanLuc Cilliers – a converted try that ultimately condemned Argentina to a place in the play-offs for ninth to 12th.
South Africa coach Chean Roux: “We treated this match as a quarter-final and the players responded very well. All credit must go to them. I think they delivered a fantastic performance, but we have achieved nothing yet. We have already started with the planning for the next game, with the opposition depending on what happens between Australia and England. The players have worked hard, but this means nothing if we do not win the next match.”
Argentina captain Tomas Malanos: "We couldn’t move on from our mistakes. After each mistake we made they made points and we couldn’t move on. The turning point of this match was the start of the second half when they started making points and we couldn’t catch up."
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