France will contest their first-ever World Rugby U20 Championship final after they fed off the passion of the vociferous home crowd to triumph 16-7 and end New Zealand's hopes of winning back-to-back titles.
Les Bleuets had produced a sublime display of attacking rugby to blow South Africa away in the first half of their pool decider, but this time it was their resolute defence and total dominance of the Baby Blacks' scrum that gave them the platform to set up a title showdown with 2017 runners-up England in Beziers on Sunday.
A sell-out crowd of 13,866 packed into the Stade Aime Giral in Perpignan and created a cacophony of noise which inspired the French, leaving six-time champions New Zealand to contemplate a bronze medal battle with South Africa, who came up just short in their second-half fight-back, going down 32-31 to England in Narbonne.
While it will be France's first final, it will be England's sixth in a row, although they came close to surrendering a commanding lead just as their senior team did against the Springboks in Johannesburg last weekend.
Semi-finals day had begun at the Stade d'Honneur du Parc des sports et de l'Amitie in Narbonne with the two fifth place semi-finals, Argentina producing a strong second-half display to beat Wales 39-15 before Australia overcame an early red card to battle past Italy 44-15.
The ninth place semi-finals were equally dramatic in Perpignan as Scotland staged their own rousing comeback to beat Celtic rivals Ireland 45-29, before Georgia left it to the dying minutes to break Japanese hearts with Gela Aprasidze's try securing a 24-22 victory that guarantees the Junior Lelos' place in the 2019 Championship.
The tournament concludes on Sunday with all six matches taking place in Béziers. First up, at 11:00 local time (GMT+2), will be the 11th place play-off between 2016 runners-up Ireland and Japan with the loser relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2019. Scotland and Georgia then meet over ninth place, before Wales face Italy for seventh. Inside the Stade de la Méditerranée, Argentina and Australia will kick-off proceedings in the fifth-place play-off at 14:00 before New Zealand and South Africa battle for bronze. The final kicks off at 19:00 local time.
SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 7-16 FRANCE
France booked their place in a first-ever World Rugby U20 Championship final in front of a packed-house in Perpignan.
In the opening minutes the home side made their intentions to play at tempo abundantly clear when captain Arthur Coville took an early tap penalty. His ensuing box-kick went straight out but it set the tone.
France looked to have created their first try after eight minutes when they went through nine phases before their talismanic number eight Jordan Joseph surged towards the line. Under considerable pressure Joseph got the offload away only to see it fumbled by his outside-centre Pierre Louis Barassi.
The match remained scoreless for the rest of the first quarter, unusual for two sides who had scored early in their three previous matches, as France continued to showcase the trademark dynamism across their backline but found themselves giving away penalties at the ruck while New Zealand fumbled a rare attacking opportunity.
Six minutes later Les Bleuets turned down a kickable penalty and opted to go for the corner. Hooker Guillaume Marchand found his man at the lineout and the home side’s pack plugged away before second-row Killian Geraci was held-up.
The five-metre scrum was played out to the sound of La Marseillaise ringing around the ground as France’s fans sensed a try. Joseph picked directly off the base and once again they came extremely close. Off another penalty infringement fly-half Louis Carbonel decided to settle proceedings and kicked a penalty to open the scoring.
New Zealand’s time on the ball remained limited while France pushed the tempo for the rest of the half. With half-time approaching Carbonel’s vision saw Matthis Lebel wide-open on the left, but the winger dropped a cross-field kick that nine times out of 10 he would have caught.
After such a low-scoring first half, Sébastien Piqueronies' side controlled the ball with ease at the start of the second. Lebel burst through the middle, looking to make up for his fumble, before a neat inside-ball was pounced on by centre Romain Ntamack. Carbonel added the conversion for a 10-0 advantage and Lebel’s game was cruelly cut short as he limped off the field.
New Zealand coach Craig Philpott looked to find his side’s spark by making early changes, sending on scrum-half Jay Renton and centre Kaleb Trask, but the next points were France's as Carbonel’s accurate boot rewarded his pack’s supremacy at the set piece and extended their advantage to 13-0.
Another monstrous scrum on the halfway line saw Carbonel step up again, but this time while his penalty had the distance, the direction was just off.
New Zealand just couldn't get their backs into the game with France's forward pack enjoying the upper hand and when Renton gave away another penalty it was Ntamack's turn to try his luck from distance, this time he had the direction but his kick dropped under the bar. It did, though, become a 16-point ball game when Carbonel slotted his third penalty.
It took until the 69th-minute for New Zealand to find a way through the French defence, Trask’s rangy pass stretched the defensive line before quick ball from captain Tom Christie put Harry Plummer over. The fly-half converted his own try to cut the deficit with 10 minutes to play.
The try galvanised New Zealand and they went nearly the length of the field with slick passing, but the move broke down when replacement hooker Ricky Jackson knocked on with the line in sight.
New Zealand were growing in confidence by the second while France saw concerning late injuries for Ntamack and Carbonel. Despite that disruption they kept cool heads in the face of intense waves of pressure to spark wild celebrations at the final whistle.
New Zealand captain Tom Christie said: “I’m immensely gutted at the result but I’m very far from being disappointed at my lads. My lads played with a lot of heart and a lot of pride. Credit to the French they’re an amazing outfit and they will punish you.”
France front-row Daniel Brennan said: “The team put in such a good effort against South Africa, we said that were coming back today and we had a cracker of a game. It’s going to be amazing [the final], I’m really looking forward to it. All the boys are pumped and the mindset is there already.”
SEMI-FINAL: ENGLAND 32-31 SOUTH AFRICA
England made it through to their sixth consecutive U20 Championship final after surviving a fierce second-half fight-back from South Africa in wet conditions in Narbonne.
The three-time champions got off to a flying start, scoring 19 unanswered points in the opening 24 minutes as the Junior Springboks failed to heed the lessons of their final pool game against France when they got stuck in the blocks and left themselves an even bigger mountain to climb.
A 33rd-minute try from giant prop Sazi Sandi changed the course of the game, though, and three further pick-and-go tries followed as South Africa used their forward might to come within a point of England.
Inch by inch they wrestled control of the match from England, who were forced into making three times as many tackles and giving away countless penalties, eventually resulting in Welsh referee Dan Jones losing his patience and sending second-row James Scott to the sin-bin.
Throwing their bodies on the line and defending with their lives, with irrepressible captain Ben Curry very much to the fore, England just about held on to break South African hearts at the semi-final stage for the second year running.
A fifth straight win over the Junior Springboks had looked a formality for England early on as they took advantage of Muller Uys’ sin-binning for a late tackle on Marcus Smith to score twice through full-back Tom Parton and centre Tom Hardwick inside the first 16 minutes.
Smith converted the latter and added the extras to Ben White’s score which followed a period of kick-tennis. Harlequins playmaker Smith chose his moment to counterattack with ball in hand perfectly, releasing Gabriel Ibitoye on a penetrating run. Like all good scrum-half’s, White tracked the winger down the middle and took the inside pass before dummying the cover defence to go over for England’s third try.
Finally sparked into life, South Africa joined the contest when Sandi burrowed over after the Junior Springboks’ first period of sustained pressure in England’s 22, Gianni Lombard converting to make it 19-7. Unforced errors prevented the 2012 champions building on the score, however, and England closed out the half with a Smith penalty.
The second half was one of total dominance for South Africa, Uys setting them in motion four minutes after the break when he atoned for his earlier misdemeanour with another close-range score.
A second Smith penalty on 48 minutes gave England brief respite from the South African forward onslaught which brought them a further try for second-row Ruan Nortje, who expertly placed the ball by the base of the post. With Lombard kicking the conversion South Africa were back to within six points and it was definitely game on.
A trademark hard-hitting tackle from centre Fraser Dingwall on Rikus Pretorius led to a try against the run of play, the dislodged ball popping kindly into the arms of winger Jordan Olowofela who raced home from close to halfway. Smith ‘s conversion made the score 30-19 to England but any thoughts they might have weathered the storm were dispelled when centre Manny Rass crossed from another pick-and-go, following a series of dominant South African scrums.
Scott’s 74th-minute yellow card meant England finished the game with 14 men and South Africa capitalised when replacement front-row Asenathi Ntlabakanye barged over. Lombard closed the gap to one with the conversion and England still had five minutes to see the contest out. The forwards kept the ball at close quarters but a knock-on and then a missed lineout, a negative feature of England’s play throughout, made for a nerve-shredding finale.
Collectively, South Africa’s tries must have come from no more than 10 metres out and to score from inside their own half proved beyond them, the Junior Springboks losing possession in the dying seconds to leave England mightily relieved.
England coach Steve Bates: “It is a great achievement for these guys, they played some really good rugby in the first half but couldn’t quite get enough ball in the second which meant it ended up being a tight game. Jordan’s try in the second half proved to be decisive and now we have a tough game to prepare for on Sunday. The first half went as we planned, we played quickly and stretched them really well. We moved the ball well and also counter attacked well. From the forwards perspective that was a gruelling game, and this side’s spirit shone through in those final moments. Now we have to recover and prepare for Sunday’s final."
South Africa captain Salmaan Moerat: “I am desperately disappointed. You can’t start a game like that, we were on the back foot from the start. But I am proud of the way the boys came back.”
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: WALES 15-39 ARGENTINA
Argentina’s sensational footballing skills and offloading game booked their place in the fifth place play-off in style in Narbonne.
Los Pumitas' backs played with confidence and tempo, while their forwards dominated in order to bounce back from their loss to Italy at the end of the pool stages. Wales had flashes of individual brilliance, but couldn't handle the dynamism and power of their opponents.
Wales dominated the early possession and tested the quality of Argentina’s defence, but Los Pumitas soaked up the pressure and opened the scoring through the boot of fly-half Joaquin de la Vega Mendia.
The early points were followed by outstanding tries at both ends of the field. The dynamic footwork of Wales winger Ryan Conbeer left five defenders clutching at thin air and his fly-half Cai Evans added the conversion for a 7-3 lead.
Argentina turned up the heat next through Santiago Carreras, the full-back's footwork saw him breakaway down the left and dink a chip ahead which scrum-half Manuel Nogues pounced on to put his side ahead again at 8-7.
After Agustin Segura was sent to the sin-bin, Wales capitalised on their extra man. A perfectly-weighted cross-field kick from Evans, moved into fly-half from full-back for this match, found winger Corey Baldwin on the right and handed them a 12-8 advantage. However, as half-time approached Los Pumitas’ forward pack weren’t finished and a penalty try sent them in with a 15-12 lead.
Argentina flew out of the blocks in the second half and again showcased their footballing prowess. Nogues' grubber kick was followed by Santiago Carreras' sensational kick-pass wide. Flanker Juan Ignacio Molina scooped it up, kept the ball alive and full-back Carreras then flew back in to finish the job to make it 22-12.
Evans cut the deficit with a penalty before their opponents went through the gears of their offloading game once again for their third try. De la Vega Mendia’s penalty increased their advantage and, despite losing full-back Carreras to a hamstring injury, they pushed the tempo until the final whistle.
Argentina coach Jose Pellicena said: "We are proud of the guys that had a very good game. We knew before that Wales would be a tough squad to beat but I think that our guys did very well and we’re very happy to be going into the fifth place play-off. We worked hard on the emotions of the guys to try to fight until the end of the tournament to and try to reach fifth position. It’s important to keep the spirit of the guys very high and to keep working every day."
Wales captain Tommy Reffell said: "I think that we went a bit off script from what our game-plan was. Fair play to Argentina, they took their chances well and they dominated in the set-piece and around the pitch."
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ITALY 15-44 AUSTRALIA
A hotly contested fifth place semi-final in Narbonne saw Australia prevail despite going down to 14-men after only 20 minutes.
Second-row Michael Wood was sent off for a kick to the head, but the Junior Wallabies regrouped and commanded the second half to set up a fifth place play-off on Sunday against Argentina.
An action-packed first half started with a stunning solo score from Italy winger Giovanni D'Onofrio, who soared high into the air to collect his Nicolo Casilio's box-kick and, with the ball safely in his hands, he unleashed a lethal step and finished the job.
Harrison Hockings’ close-range try provided Australia with an instant response to make it 5-5 after 18 minutes.
D'Onofrio’s second try put Italy ahead again before Australia’s Wood was red-carded. Despite being a man down the Junior Wallabies scored next, captain Ryan Lonergan kicking a penalty before fly-half Hamish Stewart finished off a flowing move. Lonergan’s conversion put Australia 15-10 in front at half-time.
Italy’s replacement prop Matteo Nocera was sent to the sin-bin early in the second half and, with 14-men apiece, Australia struck through flanker Fraser McReight with the conversion pushing the Junior Wallabies' lead out to 22-10 after 43 minutes.
Jason Gilmore's side continued to dominate possession and plug away through their hard-carrying forward pack. Replacement prop George Francis raised the tempo further and his first four carries took him over for a try. Lonergan missed the conversion but nailed a penalty shortly after for a commanding 32-10 lead.
D'Onofrio’s hat-trick score in the 67th minute was one to savour, the winger somehow managing to ground the ball acrobatically in the corner, but the Junior Wallabies remained in control of the match, adding tries through McReight and centre Bayley Kuenzle to guarantee another top-six finish.
Italy captain Michele Lamaro said: “I don’t know why we didn’t accelerate [with an man-advantage] but it was hard because they’re a great team. Today we didn’t come to the field with the mentality to win the game, we wanted to win it but we didn’t have the best approach to the match.”
Australia captain Ryan Lonergan said: “It was always going to be a tough game, especially at the set piece, so losing Michael was unfortunate. Credit to the piggies (forwards) they really stepped it up and allowed us backs to score some tries. Our tight five has really been killing it through the whole comp and for them to step it up on such a hot day is a credit to them. We knew Italy was going to be tough for the whole 80 but we knew if we stuck to our structure, points will come. We’ll review and get ready for Argentina.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND 29-45 SCOTLAND
In an action-packed game that featured 10 tries in total and three yellow cards, Scotland overcame a sluggish start to condemn Ireland to a relegation play-off for the first time in U20 Championship history.
Charlie Chapman converted all six of Scotland’s tries, double their tally from the pool stages, and a penalty while tight-head prop Finlay Richardson grabbed a brace. Number eight Devante Onojaife was a colossus throughout and also got his name on the scoresheet, but it was his strength over the ball in the 24th minute, on a rare foray into the opposition 22, that turned the game on its head.
Bryan Redpath’s side trailed 14-3 at the time, after conceding two converted tries from Harry Byrne and Peter Sylvester, but from Onojaife’s turnover penalty Scotland kicked to the corner and Richardson eventually burrowed his way over.
Eight minutes later, the prop grabbed his second and to compound Irish woes they lost scrum-half Hugh O’Sullivan to the sin-bin for a no-arms tackle in the build-up.
Scotland took advantage of the extra space to put winger Logan Trotter over with two minutes of the half to go, and with Chapman adding the extras again, Scotland had rattled off 21 unanswered points.
A penalty on the stroke of half-time from Byrne came as welcome relief to Ireland, but Scotland added two more seven-point tries in the third quarter, a 40-metre solo effort from impact replacement Guy Graham followed by a try for winger Kyle Rowe.
Tommy O’Brien shot over down the blindside from a five-metre scrum to give Ireland the faintest of hopes on 62 minutes but a pick-and-go try from Onojaife and Ireland captain Caelan Doris’ sin-binning, for pulling down a maul, meant the game was up for Ireland.
Rowe joined Doris in the sin-bin after Ireland scored a late consolation through Jack Daly, but there was no denying Scotland a superb victory – their first of the tournament.
Scotland captain Stafford McDowall said: “It was great to get the pressure off the shoulders, it was a big pressure game coming here and I think the boys really stood up to it. We worked on what we had to work on during the week and executed it and followed the game plan. There’s a lot of young boys in this team and there was a big emphasis on making sure they get to play at the highest level next year, and we have done that for them and done it well.”
Ireland captain Caelan Doris said: “Obviously we played them in the Six Nations and played them again in a warm-up game so we knew what they were going to bring. We came out on top in the last two which were both very close encounters but unfortunately today they came out on top. It is definitely not where we wanted to be coming into the tournament. I think we had a very tough group and some very close games in that group and they could have gone either way some of them. We find ourselves in a relegation battle and it is now about leaving the jersey in the best place and putting the lads next year back in the tournament, hopefully.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: GEORGIA 24-22 JAPAN
Georgia fought back from 10 points down to snatch victory at the death from a gutsy Japanese outfit who now face a relegation play-off with Ireland on Sunday, the loser to drop down to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2019.
Late tries from winger Demur Tapladze and test-capped scrum-half Gela Aprasidze delivered back-to-back wins the hard way and gives Georgia a chance to beat their highest finish of 10th with victory over Scotland on the final day.
Props for both sides started the try-scoring and showed considerable strength in the process. Japan’s loose-head Gakuto Ishida opened the scoring before Georgian tight-head Luka Japaridze finished off their 16-phase move five minutes later. Both conversions sailed through the uprights to make it 7-7 after the first quarter.
Yuto Mori’s boot pushed Japan further ahead before their forwards struck again. They kept it tight for 13 phases before Georgia’s Guram Gogichashvili was sent to the sin-bin for not releasing. Japan made their man advantage count quickly, using the full width of the field to put winger Halatoa Vailea over for their second try and a 17-7 lead.
Georgia, favourites going into the match after their win over Ireland in round three, seemed unperturbed by a 10-point deficit and their numerical disadvantage. Instead they hit back when a powerful scrum gave Aprasidze the space to break and it was left to the dancing footwork of Tapladze to dart around the final defenders and touch down.
Japan pressed but couldn't find another score before the break, having to settle for a 17-12 advantage. But they did cross within two minutes of the restart through the footballing skills of Kyohei Yamasawa.
Resolute Japanese defence followed as they sought to end a nine-match losing run in the U20 Championship, but Georgia upped their levels of possession and territory to more than 70 per cent. However, the Junior Lelos squandered clear try-scoring chances and then lost flanker Sandro Mamamtavrishvili to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle just before the hour mark.
Japan continued to push their intensity for the duration of the sin-bin period. However, once Georgia were back to their full complement they finally found the key to unlock the defence. Ilia Maisuradze's men found their accuracy, their pack upped the intensity and Tapladze's second try of the match opened the door towards a great escape.
Aprasidze made sure of the conversion and Japan then lost their own scrum-half Shinobu Fujiwara to the sin-bin, creating the space for fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze to exploit and his half-back partner to snatch the match-winner. Georgia did play dangerous when they elected to run the ball rather than kick it out with time up on the clock, but they were finally able to celebrate a second win in an U20 Championship for the first time.
Georgia's match-winning try-scorer Gela Aprasidze said: “This means a lot for Georgia to get more experience and to play with these sides for four years in a row. This time we were just short of the fifth to eighth places so we just hope that we will do better next year. We really want to play well against Scotland in order to gain ninth place. We will do everything for that.”
Japan captain Hisanobu Okayama said: “It’s very tough to get to the end and lose through too many penalties. We thought that we could win but we just couldn’t make it. It’s not over yet, there’s still four more days to go. We’re going to train hard and aim to win against Ireland in order to bring this experience forward to the next generation of players.”