The World Rugby U20 Championship 2018 is set for a mouth-watering conclusion on Sunday with three-time champions England to face hosts France in the title decider at the Stade de la Méditerranée in Béziers.
A sold-out crowd of 18,000 will create a cacophony of noise as the home fans attempt to cheer France to their first-ever U20 Championship title and avenge their Six Nations loss to England at the same venue in March.
The final kicks off at 19:00 local time and will be the 350th match in U20 Championship history.
While all eyes will be on the battle to be crowned champions, the action gets underway at 11:00 local time (GMT+2) with the 11th place play-off between Ireland and Japan on the annexe pitch at the Stade de la Méditerranée with the loser relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2019.
The ninth place play-off between Scotland and Georgia follows directly after at 13:30 before Wales face Italy for seventh place. Inside the Stade de la Méditerranée, Argentina and Australia will kick-off proceedings at 14:00 with the fifth place play-off, before South Africa and New Zealand meet with a bronze medal the prize for the winners.
FINAL: ENGLAND V FRANCE
The 2018 title decider will be England's sixth successive appearance in a final and a record ninth in total, but the first for hosts France who finally broke their duck in their fourth semi-final.
The two sides have met on four previous occasions on the World Rugby U20 Championship stage with France having won the most recent encounter in 2015. This weekend's title decider comes exactly 100 days after their last meeting in the U20 Six Nations.
On that day, ironically also at the Stade de la Méditerranée in Béziers that hosts the final, England secured a 22-6 victory to deny France the Grand Slam, although they did still claim the Six Nations title.
England captain Ben Curry, who missed that match through injury, doesn’t believe it will have any baring on the final given only six of his team-mates will have started both matches.
“You look at the team that played then for us and it’s completely different to the team now, so it’s a new game. We’re not playing in the past we’ve got a different team and we’re excited to play,” said flanker Curry.
“Everyone understands. We’ve been speaking about it since we got here, you get one opportunity at this. To get to a World Championship final is an incredible achievement, but we want to win.”
England coach Steve Bates had made just one change to the side that squeezed past South Africa 32-31 in the semi-finals last Tuesday with tight-head prop Ehren Painter replacing Joe Heyes.
That means that four of England's starting line-up – prop Alex Seville, hooker Henry Walker, winger Gabriel Ibitoye and full-back Tom Parton – will get a chance to go one better than last year, when England suffered a record 64-17 loss to New Zealand in the final.
France coach Sébastien Piqueronies has kept faith with the starting line-up that ended the hopes of defending champions New Zealand 16-7 in the semi-finals, making only one enforced change on the left wing where Maxime Marty returns in place of the injured Matthis Lebel.
Arthur Coville will lead an otherwise settled backline with fly-half Louis Carbonel and centre Romain Ntamack having shaken off minor knocks for a final that will be played in front of a sold-out crowd in Béziers. The creative playmakers will hope that France's pack of hard ball-carriers and dynamic line-breakers like prop Demba Bamba, flanker Cameron Woki and number eight Jordan Joseph can get them quick ball to cause trouble for England.
Joseph has been nominated for the Breakthrough Player of the Tournament after being a talisman of Les Bleuets' passage to their maiden final. The 17-year-old, who has made more offloads than any other player and beaten 18 defenders, cannot wait for the final duel.
“The final game will be a huge match. It will be very difficult against the English, but, we are a solid group and we know that we can bring forth some big surprises. After South Africa and New Zealand, why not England? It will be historic. We will do everything to make this moment magic and to make history,” said Joseph.
“At the moment, I think the fact that we are in the final and that we beat New Zealand to do it, hasn’t really sunk in. Now, we just need to beat England and we’ll make history. We can’t stop at beating New Zealand – the challenge now is to beat England. That would be perfect.”
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: SOUTH AFRICA V NEW ZEALAND
This will be the second time that South Africa and New Zealand have duelled for third place and it will be sixth meeting between the two sides in U20 Championship history.
The traditional rivals last met in the 2014 semi-final at Eden Park when South Africa were victorious, as they have been on four of the five previous meetings between the two in the premier age-grade competition.
Junior Springboks coach Chean Roux has opted for a new centre pairing of Wandisile Simelane and Lyle Hendricks. Simelane, the tournament's joint top try-scorer, switches once again from the left wing into the midfield, while Hendricks replaces the injured Rikus Pretorius. Rewan Kruger and David Coetzer are paired together in the half-backs, while Ben-Jason Dixon is given the nod at flanker and hooker Daniel Jooste returns after recovering from a rib injury.
“This is a big game for us. I would like to see a full 80-minute performance out there. Hopefully we can get a good start because we haven’t had a good start up to now, so that is something we need to focus on,” said Roux. “They are a physical side and they like to throw the ball around and play high-tempo rugby, so we need to be up for it and be ready for them.”
New Zealand coach Craig Philpott has made 10 changes in total to his starting team, three of which are positional and two forced after injuries to props Xavier Numia and Tevita Mafileo. This means a new-look front row in Oliver Norris, Ricky Jackson and Kaliopasi Uluilakepa.
Behind them there is a bit of reshuffling with Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa shifting forward into the second-row, while Devan Flanders moves from number eight to blindside flanker with Hoskins Sotutu coming into vacated position.
A new half-back pairing of Jay Renton and Kaleb Trask will steer the ship with Harry Plummer moving out one to inside-centre and Ngatungane Punivai comes in for Vilimoni Koroi at full-back as New Zealand look to bounce back from the disappointment of their semi-final loss to France and ensure they leave the country with a medal, unlike their last trip in France when South Africa won this play-off.
“We have made a number of changes and there is a lot of excitement amongst the players and there is a real feeling amongst the group that we want to finish strong,” said Philpott.
“It's an opportunity to wear the black jersey again and it’s against South Africa. It doesn’t take much to motivate a team wearing black against the Junior Springboks. They are similar to France particularly up front, they have a big forward pack and will be quite confrontational. If we get our share of set piece ball we will be able to trouble them.”
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ARGENTINA V AUSTRALIA
Argentina and Australia both have fifth position in their sights and Los Pumitas go into this play-off with a narrow 2-1 advantage over their opponents in the premier age-grade competition.
The only changes in Los Pumitas’ backline sees Santiago Chocobares return at inside-centre and Leopoldo Herrera coming back onto the wing in the place of Pablo Avellaneda.
In the forwards, Salvador Ochoa returns in the second-row with Santiago Grondona and Juan Bautista Pedemonte joining captain Joaquin de la Vega in the back-row.
After winning the hard way, with 14-men on the field for 60 minutes against Italy after Michael Wood was sent off, Australia coach Jason Gilmore makes four changes to his starting line-up, two in the forwards and two in the backs.
In the Junior Wallabies’ back-row Rory Suttor replaces the suspended Wood and Josh Kemeny gets the nod at number eight, while Mack Hansen and Isaiah Latu are tasked with providing the sparks on the wings.
“Argentina presents a unique challenge for us and for everyone in the squad it’ll be their first time playing Argentina," said Gilmore. “They have played some really good rugby at this tournament and have threats in both the forwards and backs. Our team has prepared well throughout the week and we are looking forward to the match as we aim to finish 2018 on a high.”
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: WALES V ITALY
When the sides met in this play-off 12 months ago there was just one point separating the teams come the final whistle with Wales edging in 25-24 in Tbilisi.
For Geraint Lewis’ side replicating that result will be their aim, but if Italy avenge that loss they will celebrate their best U20 Championship finish having now finished in the top eight at the last two events after five relegation battles.
Lewis has made six changes to his starting line-up and centre Ioan Nicholas takes over the captaincy with Tommy Reffell named on the bench after playing every minute of the Wales' campaign so far. Lennon Greggains takes his place with the other changes in the back being the returns of hooker Dewi Lake and flanker Taine Basham.
Full-back Joe Goodchild features for the first time since picking up an injury New Zealand on day two, while inside-centre Max Llewellyn makes his first start of the tournament and Harri Morgan comes back in at scrum-half in place of Dane Blacker.
“The players are aware of the Italians’ strengths, having lost against them in Colwyn Bay a few months ago, so it’s up to them to put it right,” said Lewis. “It was great to start our time in France with a good win, but now we’d like a positive performance and result to finish it as well."
Italy coach Fabio Roselli, meanwhile, makes a total of seven changes to his starting line-up, four in the backline and three to his pack.
Antonio Rizzi starts at fly-half for the first time since their second match against England, while Damiano Mazza and Matteo Moscardi will partner up in the centres for the third time this tournament and Alessandro Fusco comes onto the wing.
In the pack, Danilo Fischetti is preferred to Guido Romano at loose-head prop, while Lodovico Manni moves to blindside flanker with Antoine Koffi filling his vacated number eight jersey as Italy attempt to repeat their Six Nations win over Wales.
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: SCOTLAND V GEORGIA
In 2017, Scotland secured their best-ever finish of fifth, but this term their first victory only arrived last time out against Ireland but it was equally important as it guaranteed their place in the 2019 Championship.
After the six-try 45-29 win over their Celtic rivals, coach Bryan Redpath has opted for continuity against Georgia, making just two changes to his starting XV, both in the pack.
Ross Dunbar will start at loose-head prop with Sam Grahamslaw dropping to the bench, while Guy Graham gets the nod at blindside flanker and comes into the back-row alongside Rory Darge and number eight Devante Onojaife, who was immense against Ireland.
“There are still a lot of areas where we need to be better, but I was really pleased with the way we attacked the Irish defence, while we competed really well at the breakdown,” said Redpath. “The boys have again trained excellently as we prepare to face a really dangerous Georgia side, but we’ll look to carry our momentum into the clash and finish the tournament in as high a position as possible.”
For Georgia, securing ninth place would underline their continued progression after consecutive 10th place finishes in 2016 and 2017. The Junior Lelos left it late in their ninth place semi-final against Japan, coming back from 10 points down to secure victory at the death to ensure no final day relegation battle.
Georgia coach Ilia Maisuradze is forced to rejig his pack for this first meeting between the two with Sandro Mamamtavrishvili suspended after picking up three yellow cards in the tournament.
Tengiz Gigolashvili fills in at openside flanker with captain Beka Saghinadze moving to blindside and Tornike Jalagonia switching to the number eight position that he occupied against France so impressively in round two. This means a move back to the second row for Arsen Machaladze in the void created by Saghinadze's switch.
The Junior Lelos are much more settled in the backs with only two changes. Lasha Lomidze has a new midfield partner in Sandro Svanidze, while Kote Marjanishvili comes onto the wing.
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND V JAPAN
Ireland and Japan will kick-off the final day knowing that defeat will see them relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2019 with their place in the elite tier taken by the winner of that competition in 2018.
Ireland, who were finalists in Manchester in 2016, have never found themselves in this predicament with ninth their worst previous finish. However after four losses, Noel McNamara’s side are part of this winner takes all encounter.
McNamara has made six changes to his starting line-up with tight-head prop Jack Aungier returning to a front-row that will see hooker Dan Sheehan make his first Ireland U20 start. Cormac Daly comes into the second-row with Jack Daly to make his first start in the back-row.
In the backline, Jonny Stewart returns at scrum-half after coming off the bench in the loss to Scotland, while Michael Lowry will make his Ireland U20 debut at full-back.
“This isn’t a position we imagined we’d be in, but we know how important it’s going to be to get the win tomorrow," said McNamara. "Japan showed on Tuesday that they are a tough outfit and it took a late Georgia try to beat them, so we are aware of the threats they pose.”
Satoru Endo’s team, who lost this play-off in 2016 but bounced back at the first opportunity after winning last year's U20 Trophy in Uruguay, nearly avoided this high-pressured match after holding a 22-12 lead against Georgia in the ninth place semi-final, but the Junior Lelos completed a late comeback to break Japanese hearts.
Consistency of selection has been the name of the game for Japan during this tournament and Endo has made just two changes to his starting side.
Loose-head prop Yusuke Yamada is preferred to Gakuto Ishida in the front row with Atora Hondo, whose sister Ammi represented Japan at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games in skiing, coming in at scrum-half to replace Shinobu Fujiwara.