The opening day of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2018 was full of twists and turns with the future stars of the game putting on a show of running rugby for fans in Perpignan, Béziers, Narbonne and around the globe.
2017 runners-up England kicked off proceedings in Narbonne with a 39-18 win over Argentina, while Italy and South Africa also started off on the right note after tight wins over Scotland and Georgia in the other two early kick-offs in Béziers and Perpignan respectively.
New Zealand began the defence of their title with a 67-0 defeat of Japan in Narbonne, while hosts France had to dig deep to beat Ireland 26-24 in Perpignan and Wales edged Australia 26-21 in Béziers.
The action continues on Sunday with the second round of matches kicking off at 14:00 and 16:30 local time (GMT+2). Béziers hosts the games between France and Georgia and New Zealand and Wales, Australia will face Japan in the first of the two matches in Narbonne before South Africa and Ireland go head to head. The Perpignan double-header features the four Pool B teams with Scotland taking on Argentina and England meeting Italy.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 67-0 JAPAN
The first meeting between the nations in U20 Championship history went as expected with the defending champions showing off all their skills to run in 11 tries in Narbonne.
The six-time champions were relentless from the outset with Will Tucker racing over with only 50 seconds on the clock and he was followed over the line by Leicester Faingaanuku, who grabbed a brace either side of All Blacks Sevens star Vilimoni Koroi's effort to wrap up the bonus point inside 18 minutes.
Bailyn Sullivan scored an impressive try as New Zealand continued to score at more than a point a minute, but Japan then managed to get a foothold in the match as the half-hour approached and the rain began to fall heavily.
They were denied a try for offside and instead it was New Zealand who had the final say through captain Tom Christie who managed to ground the ball despite a desperate tackle by the Japanese to send his side in 38-0 at half-time.
Scrum-half Xavier Roe and second-row John Akau'ola-Laula added two more tries within 10 minutes of the match resuming to bring up the half-century.
Inevitably New Zealand’s intensity dropped off for a while and handling errors prevented them from scoring again until the hour mark when Jamie Spowart got in on the act.
The winger, who had had a try disallowed in the first half, went on to score a hat-trick as New Zealand sent out a powerful message of intent to their rivals.
New Zealand captain Tom Christie said: "We're really happy with how we performed, it was an amazing game to have up first because Japan really challenged us. Maybe the score doesn't reflect that but they competed really hard at the breakdown and their maul was hard to stop. We'll go back to the drawing board and have a look at the details and what we want to work on, and really focus on us."
Japan captain Hisanobu Okayama said: "Unfortunately we lost the game to New Zealand but we still have the games against Australia and Wales. We have got a lot of room to improve so we are going to work on that and move towards the next games. I think we managed to tackle one-on-one in a Japanese style quite well. It was the first time for me to play against New Zealand and playing against the team which is the best in the world is always going to be a challenge but I am glad that we can show Japanese rugby to the world."
POOL A: AUSTRALIA 21-26 WALES
Wales avenged last year’s narrow defeat to Australia in Geraint Lewis’ first competitive match in charge of the team.
Cai Evans, the son of World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Ieuan Evans, converted tries from centre Ioan Nicholas and replacement winger Joe Goodchild as well kicking four penalties for a 16-point haul on the night.
Australia captain Ryan Lonergan kicked three penalties, while Mack Hansen and Tate McDermott scored tries with Isaac Lucas adding a conversion.
The Junior Wallabies went into the game with a 3-0 record against Wales at the U20 Championship and with high hopes of improving on their sixth-place finish at the two previous editions.
Up until the half-hour mark, their confidence looked well placed, Bayley Kuenzie’s pinpoint cross-field kick finding its way to Hansen for an 8-6 lead.
Australia were never allowed to get into their rhythm, though, and Wales hit back when Nicholas showed a fair turn of pace to ground Ben Jones’ grubber kick just before it reached the dead ball line.
Lonergan then reduced the deficit with his second penalty but Wales found a quick response, Cory Baldwin slipping a tackle before putting Goodchild away. Evans expertly converted from out wide to push Wales two scores ahead, at 20-11.
Evans kicked a penalty either side of Lonergan’s next effort and the score stayed at 26-14 to Wales until McDermott and Hansen combined to bring about another nerve-jangling finish.
Wales captain Tommy Reffell said: “Fair play to Cai he slots them all day in training so to see him do it on the pitch, on a stage like this, was fantastic. We said we weren't just here to make up the numbers in the pool, we want to compete with the best in the world.”
Australia captain Ryan Lonergan said: “We lost the game. We really didn’t play the way we should have. We played in the right areas of the field, but we couldn’t execute any plays or build any pressure. Full credit to Wales they are a quality outfit. We can take (positives) that we were still in the match in the last play, even though we didn’t play the way we wanted to. We made a lot of errors that we shouldn’t be making so I guess that’s a positive, but it really is back to the drawing board. We need to fix those things because it’s not good enough.”
POOL B: ENGLAND 39-18 ARGENTINA
Winger Jordan Olowofela scored two tries and set up another as England overcame early injury setbacks and a strong first-half performance from Argentina to get their campaign off to a winning start under bright blue skies at the Stade d'Honneur du Parc des Sports et de L'Amitie in Narbonne.
Steve Bates’ side had to settle for a four-point lead at the break after going behind on three occasions, but Los Pumitas tired in the second half and England assumed control.
Impressive centre Santiago Chocobaras handed Argentina a fourth-minute lead when he pounced on a spilt pass in midfield and raced home from halfway. Olowofela scored his first three minutes later but England’s penalty count was troubling them, and the loss of front-row Toby Trinder and winger Ali Crossdale also caused disruption.
Juan Bautista Daireaux’s penalty nudged Argentina ahead for the second time before hooker Henry Walker was driven over for a try that James Grayson converted.
Still, Argentina came back, number eight Juan Bautista Pedemonte controlling the ball expertly behind a back-pedalling five-metre attacking scrum to score a well-taken try. England had the final word, though, Olowofela taking a floated pass from Grayson to make it 19-15 at the break.
Argentina’s only points of the second half came from the boot of De la Vega Mendia as England slammed the door shut in defence on the few occasions Los Pumitas had the ball in the opposition half.
Walker crossed for his second shortly after the restart and replacement Marcus Smith touched down late on, after some silky skills from Olowofela, with Grayson and Tom Hardwick providing further points from the tee.
Coach Steve Bates: “There were some really good bits in there, we scored some good tries, we scrummaged well, we got the ball from the lineout and scrum regularly, so all in all we’ll look back on that and say that’s not a bad start to the tournament. There is plenty for us to work on but that’s a tough start, a physical start, so we’ve got to be careful with our recovery now and move forward.”
Argentina captain Joaquin de la Vega said: "It was a really tough game, we were a bit nervous and I think that counted against us. We made a lot of mistakes when we had the ball and had to defend a lot."
POOL B: SCOTLAND 26-27 ITALY
Italy completed a World Rugby U20 Championship and Six Nations double over Scotland after the most dramatic of finishes at the Stade de la Mediterranee in Béziers.
Replacement prop Niccolo Taddia was the hero for the Azzurrini, who won 45-31 when the sides met in Bari back in March. He dived over in the third minute of stoppage after Scotland came under intense pressure following the late sin-binning of Sam Grahamslaw.
Two quick-fire tries from prop Ross Dunbar and scrum-half Charlie Chapman, following a 28th-minute penalty try for Italy and a penalty from Chapman – his only success from four attempts – had given Scotland a first-half lead.
Antonio Rizzi and Chapman exchanged penalties after the restart before Scotland scored their third try through full-back Paddy Dewhirst while Italy were down a man.
But Giovanni D’Onofrio collected a grubber kick at pace to score shortly after his return from the sin-bin, Filippo di Marco converting to bring the Italians to within six points, at 23-17.
Chapman’s three-pointer took Scotland two scores ahead but a powerful run and finish from giant winger Alessandro Forcucci set up a grandstand finish.
Forcucci played no part in it, though, after being shown the yellow card for a deliberate knock-on but the Italians never gave up the fight and, after forcing a series of penalties, Taddia crashed over from close range.
Italy captain Michele Lamaro said: "We're very proud of all the team, the replacements made a big difference and changed the game for us."
Scotland captain Stafford McDowall said: "I think it is clear this team has come a long way from the Six Nations and I think we have a lot more to give. We'll come back stronger for Sunday."
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 33-27 GEORGIA
Georgia pushed the Junior Springboks all the way at the Stade Aime Giral in Perpignan with the result in the balance until the closing stages.
The Georgians bore no resemblance to the team that shipped more than 100 points in two heavy warm-up defeats to South Africa in Stellenbosch last month, and their efforts deserved at least a losing bonus point.
The Junior Lelos were dreaming their biggest scalp at this level, having beaten Italy and Argentina in their two previous tournament appearances, as they led 17-10 at the break after well-taken tries from centre Lasha Lomidze and winger Demur Tapladze and seven points from the boot of test-capped Gela Aprasidze.
South Africa’s scores came from Wandisile Simelane and number eight Muller Uys.
Disaster struck Georgia immediately after the restart when full-back Beka Mamukashvili had his clearance charged down by Tyrone Green and the ball bounced up kindly for the winger to gather and level the scores.
Damian Willemse was successful with the conversion and then improved Zak Burger’s opportunistic score and Uys’ second as the Junior Springboks upped the ante.
Georgia were given a lifeline at 33-20 down when Willemse had a try chalked off for crossing and they made the most of their good fortune – and a sin-binning for Asenathi Ntlabakanye – to score their third try through replacement scrum-half Luka Dvalishvili.
South Africa composed themselves and, despite being a man down, they kept it tight in the forwards to prevent any last-minute scares.
South Africa coach Chean Roux: “The result is basically all we got from this game. We didn’t play well on the day. In the first half we dropped balls and made unforced errors; it was as though there was nervousness in the squad. But I think we did well in the second half. There were two tries that were not awarded, which would have made a difference, but the guys did well to hang in until the end with only 14 players. It was a good learning curve.”
POOL C: FRANCE 26-24 IRELAND
Maxime Marty played a starring role as hosts France survived a late scare from Ireland to get their campaign off to a winning start in front of a passionate home crowd in Perpignan.
The winger scored twice and was denied a third by the TMO for a foot in touch in a game where Romain Ntamack had an uncharacteristically poor night with the boot.
Ntamack, the top point scorer in the U20 Six Nations earlier this year, was only successful with half his six attempts at goal and Les Bleuets trailed for long periods in the match despite producing some sublime attacking rugby at times.
After winger Marty had given them a fourth-minute lead, France conceded 17 unanswered points to their fellow Europeans with a try from flanker Joe Dunleavy and a score right on the stroke of half-time by scrum-half Hugh O’Sullivan.
A purple patch after the restart brought France right back in it, a chip-and-chase try from Ntamack followed by Marty’s second as the home side really started to click into gear.
France looked well in command at 26-17 up but fly-half Harry Byrne benefitted from quick ruck ball to dart down the blindside and keep the result in doubt right to the end. To the relief of the home crowd, though, it was Les Bleuets who got off to a winning start.