Enthusiastic crowds of almost 20,000 saw defending champions New Zealand and hosts France secure the wins that gave them top spot in their respective pools and a place in the World Rugby U20 Championship 2018 semi-finals.
New Zealand had to battle hard to beat trans-Tasman rivals Australia 27-18 in Perpignan to top Pool A, while France produced a scintillating first-half display to beat South Africa 46-29 in Narbonne in the Pool C decider.
England, who had already qualified as Pool B winners, secured a 35-10 win over Scotland in Béziers to finish as top seeds by virtue of a try-bonus point and set up a semi-final with the Junior Springboks in Narbonne on Tuesday.
The other semi-final pits New Zealand against France in Perpignan with both semi-finals a repeat of the 2017 Championship in Georgia.
Italy beat Argentina 30-26 but missed out on a place in the top four for the first time and will now face Australia in the fifth place semi-finals. Wales will face Argentina in the other after a narrow 18-17 victory over Japan in their final Pool A match.
Georgia claimed the biggest scalp of their history with a 24-20 victory over Ireland, but still face a battle to avoid relegation from the Championship after finishing among the bottom four ranked teams after the pool stages. Georgia will face Japan, while Ireland take on Scotland in the other ninth place semi-final.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 27-18 AUSTRALIA
New Zealand continued their unbeaten record against Australia in the U20 Championship with a purposeful opening quarter which saw the defending champions accelerate out into a 17-3 lead in Perpignan.
Fly-half Harry Plummer showed great strength to score their first try with number eight Devan Flanders having the crowd in raptures as he finished their second, intercepting and racing 70 metres to score with his fly-half rewarding his lung-busting effort by adding the conversion.
Australia’s only points of the first quarter came from the boot of Isaac Lucas, however they didn’t panic and kept their composure. The Junior Wallabies’ reward arrived after 28 minutes as winger Jordan Petaia, who only arrived in France this week as an injury replacement, put a quick pop-pass to flanker Fraser McReight on the far left.
Eight minutes later Australia’s pack dominated a five-metre scrum and were rewarded when referee Karl Dickson awarded them a penalty try and a yellow card to New Zealand’s tight-prop Tevita Mafile'o, leaving the match finely poised at 17-15 at the break.
As they wrestled for supremacy both sides raised their physicality again in the early stages of the second half. Plummer and Lucas exchanged penalties before full-back Vilimoni Koroi opened up Australia’s defence with some electric footwork.
Koroi, who has honed his skills on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, put a try on a plate for winger Jamie Spowart. Plummer's accurate boot added the conversion and handed New Zealand a 27-18 lead.
In the final 15 minutes the defending champions were kept contained by their local rivals and simply couldn’t find a way through for the bonus-point try that would have made them, rather than England, top seeds for the semi-finals.
New Zealand captain Tom Christie said: “What a game. They call international rugby a Test match for a reason and that match was a real test. Any time we get to play the Aussies it’s like just like playing your big brother, no-one wants to lose and no-one wants to give them an inch. That was the exact feeling out there.”
Australia captain Tate McDermott said: “I can’t fault the boys' efforts, we put our heart and soul into that match tonight. We put a show on and really had a crack at New Zealand, but they were just too good. We needed to capitalise on their little defensive errors, we lost the match tonight by not doing that. We need to keep working on our defence, we leaked a few tries in the wide channels. We’ll build on what we started tonight, and we will turn some heads in this competition.”
POOL A: WALES 18-17 JAPAN
Wales came up short in their bid for a bonus-point victory to keep themselves in the mix for a semi-final spot, but their second win of the pool stages ensured them of a top-eight finish again in 2018.
Wales looked to be setting out their stall early at the Stade Aime Giral and pressured the line straight away. Japan, though, weren’t overawed, soaking up the pressure well before opening the scoring after scrum-half Shinobu Fujiwara whipped the ball out to winger Halatoa Vailea, who left two defenders in his wake and stepped the final man to put his side 5-0 ahead.
The Welsh settled their nerves five minutes later as the trio of centre Ioan Nicholas, winger Dewi Cross and scrum-half Harri Morgan combined for their first try, converted with ease by full-back Cai Evans to put his team 7-5 ahead.
Japan may be the lightest squad in the competition, but their pack showed their prowess at the driving maul to create their second try before prop Miyu Arai surged across the whitewash to re-establish their lead.
Evans’ accurate boot, though, ensured Wales closed out the first half with two penalties to go into half-time with a slender 13-10 lead.
The Welsh full-back missed a penalty early in the second half before winger Corey Baldwin used his footwork and pace to create a run-in for Cross and make it an eight-point ball game.
It would remain that way until the 74th minute when Japan's determination and patience was rewarded with another close-range try, this time by centre Sioeli Vakalahi with Yuto Mori's touchline conversion made it a one-point game.
Wales pressed hard to find a third try and make sure of their second victory, keeping it tight 15 phases only for replacement Iestyn Harris to knock on. Fortunately for Wales, Japan weren't able to go the length of the field and deny them victory.
Wales captain Tommy Reffell said: "We knew Japan would have had their eyes on us at the start of the tournament so to come away with a win was good. Credit to them, they made the scoreline a lot closer than we would have wanted it to be. We need to work on our discipline and maul defence in training."
POOL B: ENGLAND 35-10 SCOTLAND
England had already booked their place in the semi-finals, but guaranteed top seeding after a bonus-point win over Scotland at the Stade de la Mediterranee in Béziers.
Steve Bates' side, who had lost to Scotland in the U20 Six Nations earlier this year, were quickly out of the blocks against a much-changed Scottish outfit with winger Gabriel Ibitoye showing the handful he is after only four minutes.
Ross Thompson responded for Scotland off the tee before England’s pack went through the gears and prop Beck Cutting dotted down at the end of the first quarter. Second-row James Scott extended England's lead to 17-3 shortly afterwards before the 2017 runners-up lost full-back James Grayson to the sin-bin.
England held out with 14 men only to concede a try with just two minutes to go to half-time when Thompson’s perfect grubber kick was pounced on by winger Kyle Rowe and the fly-half’s conversion put Scotland right back into the mix at 17-10.
Ibitoye started the second half in the same manner as the first. His acrobatic finish secured England the try-scoring bonus-point in style. Tom Hardwick missed the conversion but extended his team’s lead to 25-10 with a penalty seven minutes later.
Scotland replacement Devante Onojaife was sin-binned for a high tackle after 69 minutes and England immediately made use of the extra man. Second-row Joel Kpoku used his long limbs to dive over and replacement Matt Williams made sure that England finished with six tries on the board.
England captain Ben White said: “I think that we put in a really good performance tonight. We knew how difficult Scotland would be going into the game, they showed great heart and courage and it’s always a good fixture with the Scots. We really dug deep and showed what we can do.”
POOL B: ITALY 30-26 ARGENTINA
Italy did all they could in a bid to reach the semi-finals for the first time with a bonus-point victory over Argentina at the Stade de la Mediterranee. It ultimately wasn't enough but they finish second in a pool for the first time in U20 Championship history.
During a high-tempo opening Los Pumitas thought they had scored within the first two minutes but a forward pass in the build-up scratched off the potential try.
Italy then took full control and ran in three tries before their opponents could respond, the first two finished off down a profitable left wing.
Full-back Alessandro Fusco used his footwork to set up centre Damiano Mazza before Filippo di Marco’s pinpoint cross-field kick found winger Giovanni D’Onofrio. Number eight Ludovico Manni scored the third try with Di Marco's two conversions making it 19-0 as their dominance held firm despite Jacopo Bianchi spending 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
Argentina were struggling with handling errors, but finally found their flow either side of half-time. Winger Leopoldo Herrera made sure his side went in trailing 22-5 before flanker Santiago Grondona created magic afterwards, flying down the left wing and putting in a delicate chip which full-back Santiago Carreras pounced.
Italy scored their bonus-point try after 51 minutes through Mazza to make it 27-12, but the Azzurrini were never allowed to feel comfortable as Los Pumitas kept on pushing forward.
Winger Mateo Carreras duplicated the footballing skills of his flanker for Argentina's third try and replacement Ignacio Mendy sliced through in the final minute for their fourth. However, Antonio Rizzi’s 71st-minute penalty had ensured that Italy’s lead was healthy enough to secure victory.
Italy captain Michele Lamaro said: "It is incredible, it is history for Italy because we have never come second in the pool before."
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA 29-46 FRANCE
A bumper crowd of more than 9,000 were treated to a wonderful exhibition of running rugby as hosts France booked their place in the semi-finals as winners of Pool C in Narbonne.
South Africa, who beat France to the bronze medal last year, showed tremendous heart to fight back and take a bonus point after reverting to their forward power, but it is France’s breathless first half display that will long in the memory.
The Junior Springboks had no answer to the hosts’ offloading game and superb support play with number eight Jordan Joseph proving an unstoppable force until he was replaced at half-time, sparing the Junior Springboks any further punishment. By then, Joseph, still only 17 and with an incredible future in front of him, had bagged a brace as the hosts scored at almost a point a minute to lead 36-7 going into the break.
The second half was a different story altogether but any team would find it difficult to sustain such high levels of play for an entire 80 minutes.
After missed penalty attempts from both sides, France got on the board in the seventh minute when Louis Carbonel and Pierre Louis Barassi combined to put Joseph away. The big number eight still had plenty to do but he used his muscular frame to hold off two would-be tacklers before producing a brilliant one-handed finish in the corner.
Carbonel kicked a penalty to take the lead into double figures and he then finished off a quite superb team try involving defence-busting runs in the build-up from prop Demba Bamba and rangy flanker Cameron Woki as well as quick hands from captain Arthur Colville. The Toulon fly-half was also involved in the move that led to try number three, scored by Joseph after he brushed aside Tyrone Green, Romain Ntamack adding the conversion to make it 22-0 in the blink of an eye.
France were called back for a forward pass when it looked like Matthis Lebel was in the clear, but they didn’t have to wait long to bag the bonus point, Barassi benefitting from another Joseph run and some neat interplay. With “Allez Les Bleuets” ringing out around Stade d'Honneur du Parc des sports et de l'Amitie, Ntamack got in on the act in the 34th minute when he powered over from close range.
Schalk Erasmus’ close-range try on the stroke of half-time was scant consolation for the shell-shocked South Africans who, unsurprisingly, unloaded the bench at half-time. The changes worked as South Africa scored 22 points with only seven conceded in reply as France’s ill-discipline – they gave away 16 penalties – let them down. Semi-final opponents New Zealand will have taken note.
Tiaan van der Merwe dotted down from the back of a maul before France hit back with their only try of the second half, scored by Jean-Baptiste Gros after Woki intercepted a loose pass.
Tournament top try-scorer Wandisile Simelane then showed what he could do when finally given the ball with a neat finish on 64 minutes. With South Africa firmly in the ascendency, replacement front-rows Alulutho Tshakweni and Sazi Sandi added further tries from the trusted pick-and-go route while France were down to 14 men following a yellow card for Maxime Lamothe.
France fittingly had the final say when Carbonel kicked a late penalty to take his tally for the match to 17 points, and shortly afterwards his side were left to celebrate a first win over South Africa at this level in seven attempts.
South Africa captain Salmaan Moerat said: “All credit to the French, they came out all guns blazing. But it was a disappointing performance from us and we'll go back to the drawing board to review the mistakes we made and try and learn from them. I take my hat off to the guys for the way they fought back in the second half but in a tournament like this you can't start like that."
France flanker Antonin Berruyer said: “I think that we prepared well for this game and now we have to recover and get ready for the semi-final. We work on our offloads but this week we worked around the ruck because in our last games we didn’t do well in that area.”
POOL C: IRELAND 20-24 GEORGIA
Fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze scored one of the tries of the tournament as Georgia claimed their biggest U20 Championship scalp with a 24-20 victory over Ireland that was never as tight as the final scoreline suggests.
Abzhandadze's 44th-minute try, from a move that started inside Georgia’s own 22, left Ireland with too much to do despite a late comeback which brought TMO Shane McDermott into use at regular intervals.
From the moment Conor Dean booted his kick-off out on the full, not much went right for Ireland who now face a battle to retain their U20 Championship status.
After a litany of reset scrums and handling errors, the game belatedly burst into life in the 11th minute when Gela Aprasidze’s inside pass found Arsen Machaladze on the charge and the second-row crashed over.
Despite dominating possession, 2016 runners-up Ireland couldn’t find a way through and after an exchange of penalties between Dean and scrum-half Aprasidze, the Junior Lelos struck again when down to 14 men.
Having lost influential flanker Sandro Mamamtavrishvili to the sin-bin for a high tackle, Georgia found themselves under the pump and outnumbered in defence in the wide channels. However, Sandro Svanidze read the play perfectly and rushed up to intercept a pass from James Hume and run in the try from 80 metres, Aprasidze converting for the second time in the match to put his side up 17-3.
Georgia’s resolute goal-line defence repelled Ireland’s narrow attacks time and time again, but they were powerless to stop Dean wriggling over from close range when Ireland finally decided to put the ball through the hands. The fly-half’s conversion struck the top of the upright and the score remained 17-8 to Georgia up until half-time.
Ireland came out from the break fired-up, but they failed to look after possession and were turned over inside the Junior Lelos’ 22. Tight-head prop Luka Japaridze went on a bullocking run before play was spread wide to the left where Demur Tapladze made good ground. Tapladze’s kick on the run landed 10 metres from the try-line, and Abzhandadze showed great composure to dribble the ball into the in-goal area and dot down for a score to rival half-back partner Aprasidze’s IRPA Try of the Year 2017 nominated effort from last year’s meeting between the sides.
From that moment it was all Ireland as the bench made a significant impact in the final quarter. Ireland captain Caelan Doris thought he had scored but was ruled to have made a double movement and then Jonny Stewart had a try chalked off for a forward pass. Minutes later, Jack Dunne was also adjudged to have knocked on in the act of grounding. Finally, Ireland got the scores their late rally deserved when replacemnets Cormac Daly and Jakub Wojtkowicz burrowed over from close range as the game ended with three tries apiece.
Georgia's Tedo Abzhandadze said: "We won, but we'd have been a lot happier had we got the bonus point."