Three places remain to be filled in the World Rugby U20 Championship 2018 semi-finals after former winners England were confirmed as Pool B winners after another day of compelling rugby in France on Sunday.
England’s 43-5 defeat of Italy in Perpignan gives them a maximum 10 points from two rounds and means that whatever happens when the pool stages conclude on Thursday they cannot be overhauled by Argentina or the Italians.
Defending champions New Zealand and South Africa are the only other teams with 10 points and sit top of Pool A and C respectively. New Zealand beat Wales 42-10 in wet conditions in Béziers, while South Africa had to dig deep again to overcome Ireland 30-17 in Narbonne.
Hosts France are the only other unbeaten team left in the tournament after they battled past Georgia 24-12 in Béziers, but the failure to secure a bonus point leaves them one behind South Africa and sets up perfectly their Pool C decider in round three.
Four other teams remain in contention, although Wales, Italy and Argentina can only hope to claim the best runner-up spot across the three pools. Argentina kept themselves in the mix with a 29-13 defeat of Scotland in the opening match in Perpignan. The day's other winners were Australia, who finished strongly to beat Japan 54-19 in Narbonne.
The pool stages reach an exciting conclusion on Thursday with the remaining semi-final places at stake. In Béziers, Italy take on Argentina in Pool B before England tackle rivals Scotland, while in Narbonne Ireland face Georgia before hosts France and South Africa battle it out for top spot. Meanwhile in Perpignan, Wales will face Japan with New Zealand and Australia meeting in the Pool A decider.
POOL A: AUSTRALIA 54-19 JAPAN
Australia knew that a bonus-point win was essential if they were to truly remain in the hunt for a semi-final place after losing their opener to Wales and it took a strong second-half display to secure it against a much-improved Japanese outfit.
The Junior Wallabies, who went through the 1,600-point mark in U20 Championship history in the first half, score four tries in each half to set up a pool decider with New Zealand on Thursday in Perpignan.
Australia charged out of the blocks and used their physical advantage over lighter Japanese with centre Semisi Tupou scoring the opening try after hitting the line at pace, before full-back Mack Hansen showed pace out wide to make it 14-0.
Japan’s first try of the tournament was a sight to behold. Full-back Kyohei Yamasawa ducked under an Australian tackle and charged through their loose-head prop to score. The try ignited Japan's confidence and fly-half Hiroto Mamada put in a pin-point cross-field kick shortly after, Kai Yamamoto soaring high into the air to touch down with a huge smile on his face.
The Junior Wallabies reasserted their physical superiority as the dynamism of prop Efitusi Maafu and second-row Michael Wood saw them score tries for a 28-12 half-time lead.
After a quieter start to the second half in terms of points scoring, Australia took full control once again with tries from winger Matthew McTaggart, captain Tate McDermott and replacement Ryan Lonergan (2).
Japan, though, had the final score with just seconds remaining as no-one could stop replacement Sioeli Vakalahi from crashing over the line.
Australia coach Jason Gilmore said: “We needed the five points from that match and I thought the boys fought really hard throughout. We probably had a bit of a slow patch midway through the first half, but I was really pleased with how we finished the game in the last 20 minutes. I thought the whole team went really well. The half-backs steered the team. Bayley Kuenzie went really well at 10 and Tate McDermott and Lono (Ryan Lonergan), when he came on at half-time. The forwards worked really hard too. We knew that they (Japan) were a dangerous side. They have a couple of big Tongan lads that take some stopping, and they keep the ball very well, so you have to be sharp in defence.”
Japan captain Hisanobu Okayama said: “Of course, the points difference is bigger than we wanted but we trained well and improved a lot from the first game and we managed to attack and defend in the Japanese style.”
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 42-10 WALES
New Zealand lost three players to the sin-bin but still dominated a tenacious Welsh side as they registered their second bonus-point win of the campaign at Stade de la Mediterranee in Béziers.
Vilimoni Koroi and Tom Florence both took a 10-minute breathers as New Zealand led 25-10 at the break before Tanielu Tele’a saw yellow at the end of the second half.
Despite their ill-discipline, New Zealand never looked like falling victim to an upset with scrum-half Xavier Roe expertly controlling play and keeping Wales pinned back in their own 22 for long periods.
The Waikato man deservedly got his name on the scoresheet from a quickly-taken tap penalty, shortly after Wales had lost Lewis Ellis-Jones to the bin, with the rest of New Zealand’s tries coming from Billy Proctor, Bailyn Sullivan, captain Tom Christie and replacement tight-head Tevita Mafileo.
Sullivan created the first for Proctor in the third minute with a powerful run involving two hand-offs and an offload before number eight Taine Basham got Wales back on level terms with a brilliant finish in the corner after Koroi had been sent to the sin-bin for sticking out a hand to stop a Welsh two-on-one.
Questionable decision-making and some needless penalties cost Wales the chance to press home their advantage and, after an exchange of penalties between Plummer and Cai Evans, Sullivan touched down after a neat offload from Tele’a.
Koroi’s show-and-go and another offload from Sullivan set up Tom Christie for his second of the tournament with 29 minutes gone. Plummer added the extras and then booted a 48-metre penalty on the stroke of half-time as the rain started to pour down. By this stage, Florence’s involvement had been temporarily curtailed due to a dangerous tackle.
Determined defensive sets from Wales meant that for all their dominance New Zealand only had a second Plummer penalty to show for their efforts - until the 64th minute when Mafileo charged down Ben Thomas’ attempted clearance and then scooped up the loose ball from the greasy surface to race home from 15 metres.
New Zealand remained camped in Welsh territory and after several near-misses Roe darted over from close range. The game ended on a low note for New Zealand though when Tele’a became the third player to be sent to the sin-bin for a late tackle.
New Zealand captain Tom Christie said: "What a game of rugby, we knew we were in for a battle. I'm really pleased with how my boys came up over that. The good thing about New Zealand rugby is the amazing depth, number one to 15 know we have people biting at our heels so we are really motivated to keep going and put those performances in."
Wales captain Tommy Reffell said: “The defensive errors really cost us. Everyone knows that against a team like New Zealand you can’t make errors like that because they’ll capitalise on them and punish you. Luckily we play a sport where you get a second chance to redeem yourself and all eyes will be on the Japan game now. It is a must-win match.”
POOL B: SCOTLAND 13-29 ARGENTINA
Argentina may have secured a bonus-point victory over their Pool B rivals, but it was a much closer affair than the final scoreline would suggest.
Los Pumitas held a 15-7 cushion at the break, but saw that cut to just two points until two late tries - one from Mateo Carreras and the other a penalty try - in the final 10 minutes secured their first win of the 2018 Championship.
Argentina opened the scoring within two minutes when fly-half Juan Bautista Daireaux's half-step and quick ball to Juan Pablo Castro saw the centre touch down from close range. Daireaux duly added the conversion to give Los Pumitas a dream start.
Scotland repelled more early pressure, including Carreras’ try being pulled back for a forward pass, but Argentina kept their intensity high. Leopoldo Herrera showed his pace on the right wing and doubled their try tally on the 20-minute mark.
The Scots finally got on the scoreboard with a try that showed all of fly-half Callum McLelland’s skills, including a textbook sidestep and plenty of pace. His half-back partner Charlie Chapman was on target from the tee to cut the deficit to 12-7
Second-row Jamie Hodgson was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul two minutes from half-time. Daireaux’s penalty finished the half before two from Chapman kept the game finally balanced at 15-13.
Santiago Grondona’s charge-down looked to be Argentina’s third try before the TMO ruled it out for a high tackle in an earlier phase. Los Pumitas were denied another try with a knock-on inches from the line so the score remained that way going into the final 10 minutes at the Stade Aimé Giral in Perpignan.
A second score was also chalked off for Los Pumitas, a knock-on seen inches from the line, and it remained 15-13 in their favour going into the final ten minutes
Carreras delivered the third try, he brushed off Scotland’s full-back and turned on the accelerator, and a late penalty try added a touch of gloss.
Scotland captain Stafford McDowall said: “I think we gave ourselves a chance with around 15-20 minutes to go, but we just couldn’t keep hold of the ball and that’s what cost us. Argentina got two breakaway tries at the end there.”
Argentina captain Joaquin de la Vega said: “It was a really tough game but a good win so we are very, very happy. We have to celebrate today’s win and then tomorrow we'll start thinking about Italy. It will be a tough, physical game.”
POOL B: ENGLAND 43-5 ITALY
Three-time champions England became the first to confirm their place in the semi-finals after braces from winger Ben Loader and fly-half Marcus Smith helped secure a second bonus-point victory.
Steve Bates’ outfit have now scored 12 tries in the competition and top Pool B going into their meeting with their U20 Six Nations conquerors Scotland in Béziers on Thursday.
England, who have reached more U20 Championship finals than any other team, showed their power in the first three minutes when captain Ben Curry stretched over the line following the pack’s hard carrying but there was no clear evidence of a grounding.
The English fans, though, didn't have long to wait as with six minutes gone Marcus Smith did score the first try, his turn of pace and step leaving the last defender clutching at thin air and was a sign of things to come.
Italy’s pack almost rumbled over six minutes later only to be repelled multiple times, but then England tidied up their own attacking play and full-back Tom Parton finished a well-worked team try down the left.
Loader’s first put them into a comfortable 21-0 lead before Italy opened up down the left and number eight Antoine Koffi showed the pace of a back to score. Loader’s second, and Smith’s accuracy off the tee, re-established England’s 21-point advantage at the break.
Further tries from winger Gabriel Ibitoye, Smith and scrum-half Rory Brand finished a dominant second-half display for England, although they finished the match with 14 players after second-row Sam Lewis was shown a red card five minutes from time.
England coach Steve Bates said: "It was a really good first 50 minutes. We put a lot of pressure on Italy, scored seven tries and probably could have scored a couple more. It was a really important step forward but we know we can improve and there is lots to come from this side. I thought we put them under a lot of pressure up front, we scrummaged really well and that set the platform. We took our opportunities in the first half and despite the game becoming slightly fragmented in the second period I'm still satisfied with the performance. We know Scotland will be a really tough challenge, but so far so good."
Italy captain Michele Lamaro said: "We knew it would be a very hard match, England are a great team. We are now on five points and the third match with Argentina will be the hardest."
POOL C: FRANCE 24-12 GEORGIA
France and Georgia treated the crowd to a tight contest which the hosts will have been relieved to come away with a victory from, albeit one without a bonus point, in Béziers.
After a fast start France fly-half Louis Carbonel calmed proceedings with the first points from the tee before Georgia’s response came through their captain and number eight Tornike Jalagonia, who surged over after the dynamism of Gela Aprasidze in the build up.
The encounter remained locked at 7-3 until the end of the final quarter, despite France launching wave after wave of attack in front of their home fans. The Junior Lelos' resolve was eventually broken when second-row Thomas Lavault acrobatically dived through two defenders from close-range and Carbonel ensured the full complement of points.
With constant phases swinging the ball across the field, a yellow card for flanker Sandro Mamamtavrishvili handed the France the numbers for their pack to drive over the line, only for the try to be chalked off after Jordan Joseph knocked the ball on trying to ground it.
France's were eventually rewarded for their possession on the stroke of half-time after what could be the offload of the tournament from flanker Ibrahim Diallo led to a try for centre Arthur Vincent and sent the hosts in leading 17-7.
Early in the second-half Aprasidze kept his opponents honest as he attempted a penalty from 63 metres out. It fell just short but fired a warning to Les Bleuets not to infringe around halfway again.
With determination etched over their faces France extended their lead as Joseph make the metres before the dynamic thinking of Jules Gimbert came to the fore. His quick tap caught Georgia napping and Iban Etcheverry soared in for a winger's finish. Carbonel’s conversion curled through the uprights for a 24-7 cushion.
The last word went to Georgia, who had gone down 33-27 to South Africa on day one, through winger Otar Dzagnidze but France had done enough to secure their second victory.
France captain Antonin Berruyer said: “They are very good Georgian team with so many that are good in the tackle and in defence. To get into the semi-final we must increase our level and now we will go to work to play against South Africa and let’s see after.”
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 30-17 IRELAND
Wandisile Simelane’s hat-trick helped the Junior Springboks to a second victory and each exactly 2,000 points in the tournament's history.
The bonus-point win takes South Africa to the top of Pool C, one point above their next opponents France, but they will be concerned after seeing star fly-half Damian Willemse carried off on a stretcher with a leg injury.
Ireland had been locked 17-17 with the Junior Springboks after 51 minutes but a superior final quarter saw South Africa pull clear.
South Africa, the 2017 bronze medallists, scored after only 26 seconds when scrum-half Zak Burger charged down his opposite number’s box-kick attempt. Willemse immediately added the conversion for a perfect South African start.
The fly-half’s hot-stepping almost produced their second before the pace that Muller du Plessis has shown on this year’s HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series made sure of the score.
Conor Dean’s boot delivered Ireland’s first points as the second quarter commenced and they forced their opponents into making 40 tackles to their nine after 27 minutes. Ireland maintained a hold on the territory and captain Caelan Doris surged off the base of a scrum for a try.
Dean added the conversion to make it 12-10 to South Africa at the break. The start of the second-half almost mirrored the first with a Junior Springboks' score, but Tyrone Green ran out of pitch as he chased down a kick ahead. Instead, Doris created a five-pointer for his full-back Michael Sylvester.
Trailing 17-12, South Africa lost their playmaker Willemse but they rallied and exploited the space in the back field for the first of Simelane's three second-half scores. With Gianni Lombard missing the conversion the scores were tied.
Simelane’s second came from his aerial work as he plucked a box-kick out of the air and duly put the Junior Springboks 22-17 in front. Lombard missed the conversion and a further penalty, but made sure of a 68th-minute kick. Simelane then wrapped up his hat-trick and a second victory for his side.
South Africa's hat-trick hero Wandisile Simelane: “It was a very important win for us, it was like cup final because we knew we needed to win to stay in the competition. From the start we said that it would take 80 minutes of hard work so I am very proud of the boys that we pulled it off."
Ireland captain Caelan Doris: “It was similar to the France game, there were a lot of positives but unfortunately in the last 20 minutes their power shone through and they got a couple of scores off the scrum. We gifted them that first score and have them a head started. We came back in the second 20 of the first half and I felt we were in a good place going into the second half but they came back and got another purple patch.”