The Stade de la Méditerranée was rocking on Sunday as France beat England 33-25 to be crowned World Rugby U20 Championship winners for the first time in the competition's 11-year history.
France, playing in their maiden final, fed off the cacophony of noise created by the 17,700 strong crowd to avenge their loss to England in the Six Nations in March and cap off a remarkable year that has seen them win that title and the World Championship crown.
It was a second final loss in a row for England after they suffered a record loss to New Zealand 12 months ago in Georgia, but both sides played their part in an enthralling conclusion to the premier age-grade competition.
There was further cause for celebration for France after their 17-year-old number eight Jordan Joseph was named the Breakthrough Player of the Tournament in association with Tudor.
All six matches on the final day took place in Béziers with South Africa battling back to beat New Zealand 40-30 to claim the bronze medal and Australia finishing fifth after a 41-15 victory over Argentina.
Wales finished seventh for the second year in a row after seeing off Italy 34-17, while Georgia recorded their second Six Nations scalp and highest ever finish of ninth after beating Scotland 39-31.
The day's opening match brought joy for Ireland and dismay for Japan, who will play in the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2019 after losing a thrilling 11th place play-off to Ireland 39-33.
FINAL: ENGLAND 25-33 FRANCE
Exactly 100 days on from their Six Nations loss in Béziers, France turned the tables on England to win their first U20 Championship title on a balmy evening of high emotion before a crowd of 17,700.
Hailed as the golden generation before the tournament started, Les Bleuets rose to the big occasion to deservedly come out on top in a real arm-wrestle of a game. While number eight Joseph and centre Romain Ntamack have rightly taken many of the plaudits throughout much of the campaign, it was the front-row and the unerring boot of fly-half Louis Carbonel that did most of the damage on a day when France’s finest young players delivered the goods in one of their country’s oldest cities.
Carbonel contributed 23 of his side’s points, converting Adrien Seguret’s late try in addition to seven penalties. Les Bleuets’ other try came in the first half through flanker Cameron Woki.
Jordan Olowofela capped a fine tournament with a try at the end of each half for England, while captain Ben Curry took the game to France throughout but the continual stream of penalties against his side hurt them badly.
The first of the 16 penalties they conceded during the game cost them three points as Carbonel struck the ball sweetly through the posts to hand his side a fifth-minute lead.
French rugby supporters love a big scrum at the best of times and when the pack delivered a big shove, the crowd showed their appreciation as the noise inside the Stade de la Méditerranée became even louder.
Les Bleuets’ dominance in this area helped to take England’s penalty count up to five inside the first quarter and Carbonel made it 6-0 with his second shot at goal. Marcus Smith replied in kind a couple of minutes later when France knocked on the restart and Demba Bamba strayed offside.
France, though, were still the dominant side and a brilliant finish in the corner from Cameron Woki after an out-the-back offload from Maxime Marty put them 11-3 up on 26 minutes. Smith had a chance to cut the eight-point deficit but pushed his 33rd minute penalty just wide.
Opposite number Carbonel made no mistake with his next shot at goal after a frenetic period of play ended with Curry being penalised for tackling an opponent without the ball.
Mindful of the threat Olowofela and Gabriel Ibitoye posed, France managed to close England’s wide men down for much of the half with their suffocating defence. However, a patient, 23-phase build-up from England eventually opened up some space, Tom Hardwick’s floated pass finding Olowofela free on the right for a morale-boosting score on the stroke of half-time.
However, England were unable to build on the momentum and when Ehren Painter gave away a needless offside penalty two minutes into the second period, they found themselves 17-8 down.
Having dealt with England’s aerial assault, France stretched their lead to 15 points from two scrum penalties, the second coming after three England players were pinged for being in front of the kicker at the restart.
Changes to the front-row combination finally gave England some joy at the scrum and with the verdict going in their favour following another collapse, Smith stepped up to kick his second penalty.
No doubt aware of Les Bleuets’ tendency to drop off in the final quarter, England pressed hard to get back in the game but another penalty, this time for bringing down the maul, saw Carbonel put his side three scores clear with just over 10 minutes to go.
England’s forwards went through the guts of France’s defence to deliver a close-range try for replacement prop Joseph Heyes but any thoughts of a dramatic comeback win, and a fourth title, were quashed when Seguret got on the end of a Carbonel grubber kick to touch down by the posts.
Olowofela grabbed a consolation for Steve Bates’ side with time almost up but this was France’s night.
England coach Steve Bates said: “We were just a bit ill-disciplined at times and kept giving them the chance to keep the scoreboard ticking over. We knew that they were going to be tough at this ground, with this sort of support, so really proud of the performance from our guys but we just let them creep ahead too much. They’ll see it as a fantastic experience, a very valuable one for them in the future. Not many of them will come to a stadium like this and be in this sort of atmosphere very often, certainly not before now and maybe not much after. They’ll reflect on it and say that ‘we gave it out best shot but we were not quite good enough on the day but what a great experience this whole thing has been'.”
France coach Sébastien Piqueronies said: “It’s a squad win, staff and players. We were focused, we worked a lot and it’s a great award for all of the work that we have done. We were very united. It’s a moment of history, we wanted to win for ourselves, for this group of players and staff. We are very proud of what we have done."
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: SOUTH AFRICA 40-30 NEW ZEALAND
A dominant second half from South Africa saw them score 26 unanswered points to claim a second successive bronze medal.
After trailing 25-14 at half-time, South Africa got a grip of the third place play-off after the break and New Zealand’s only reply came in the 80th minute of the match.
Both teams started with purpose and two of the four first-half tries arrived before five minutes had been played by the traditional rivals.
Winger Tyrone Green pounced on a wayward pass and accelerated through the gears to score, before New Zealand instantly replied through scrum-half Jay Renton. Centre Harry Plummer added the conversion and a penalty which put New Zealand 10-7 ahead.
A charge-down on Rewan Kruger resulted in New Zealand’s second try, scored by Plummer, and shortly after Junior Springboks' coach Chean Roux changed his scrum-half. Roux was also forced to change his fly-half and introduce Lubabalo Dobela due to an injury to David Coetzer.
New Zealand also lost a half-back early in the match as scrum-half Renton was unable to shake off a knock and was replaced by Xavier Roe.
Plummer’s 49-metre penalty extended New Zealand’s advantage before Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa produced a superb solo-score. The second-row broke effortlessly out of the tackle, fended off South Africa full-back Gianni Lombard and charged under the posts. Once again, Plummer was accurate off the tee and his conversion made it 25-14 after 40 minutes.
South Africa, well-aware of the need to strike first after the interval, flew out of the blocks and never looked back, finishing a match stronger than they have begun it once again in this tournament.
The hard-carrying of the Junior Springboks’ forwards allowed Wandisile Simelane to release Green out wide and Lombard’s excellent touchline conversion cut New Zealand’s lead to four points.
A deliberate knock-on by Bailyn Sullivan saw him sent to the sin-bin and in his absence South Africa turned up the heat with tries from Ruan Nortje and a length-of-the-field effort finished off by Simelane to ensure that he finished tied as joint top scorer with Italy winger Giovanni D'Onofrio on six. Lombard’s accurate boot handed them a 33-25 advantage.
The Junior Springboks’ hold on the match tightened as the full-time whistle approached, replacement prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye scoring with six minutes to go and the successful conversion took their tally of unanswered second-half points to 26.
New Zealand winger Caleb Clarke had the final say after using his excellent footwork to profit from his fly-half’s cross-field kick, but it was too little, too late and South Africa came out on top, just as they had done five years ago when the sides met in a third place play-off on French soil.
South Africa coach Chean Roux said: “It was an awesome comeback in the second half, and I am happy for the players because they worked very hard for this, so all credit to them. In saying that, I am still very disappointed that we were not in the final because that was our goal from the outset. It was good, though, to beat New Zealand to finish third.”
New Zealand captain Tom Christie said: “I’m absolutely gutted with the result. I think that my team played the 80 as we should and get gave it a massive effort. South Africa came out physically and really brought the game to us which showed on the scoreboard at the end of the day.”
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ARGENTINA 15-41 AUSTRALIA
Australia led from start to finish against Argentina but it took late tries from Mack Hansen and Isaac Lucas to put a touch of gloss onto the final scoreline.
The Junior Wallabies put plenty of early pressure on Los Pumitas and on eight minutes their relentless work paid off as second-row Angus Blyth reached over to score after 17 phases.
Australia captain Ryan Lonergan made sure of the extras and despite continuing to dominate the possession they conceded next due to the quick-thinking of Joaquin de la Vega Mendia when Argentina were awarded a penalty.
The fly-half’s pinpoint cross-field kick soared into the hands of Mateo Carreras and the winger stepped his opposite number with ease and raced away to touch down under the posts and give De la Vega Mendia a straightforward kick to tie the scores at 7-7.
Australia edged ahead once again through hooker Efitusi Maafu’s close-range try and the boot of Lonergan, who added both the conversion and a penalty for a 17-7 lead which they would take into half-time.
De la Vega Mendia and Lonergan exchanged penalties at the start of the second half, either side of Argentina’s Manuel Nogues being sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on.
With the man-advantage, Australia tightened their hold on the game by adding another penalty and their third try through prop Tom Ross.
Los Pumitas’ Santiago Grondona touched down after a well-worked driving maul with 10 minutes to go to cut the deficit to 27-15 but it was Australia who finished with a flourish to record their best finish since they last finished fifth in 2015.
Replacement back-row Patrick Tafa created the space for winger Hansen to score before Bayley Kuenzle cut Argentina's defensive line in half on the final play with Isaac Lucas the beneficiary of his hard work.
Argentina captain Joaquin de la Vega said: “We really wanted to win this last game but I think that it was a very good tournament in comparison to last year. We’ve made great progress, we still want to get better results, but I’m very proud of my guys.”
Australia captain Ryan Lonergan said: "We knew that Argentina were going to be a good team, their loss against Italy really wasn’t them, so we knew that it was going to be a tough challenge. They really showed that, the score probably doesn’t reflect how tough the game actually was with a couple of late tries there.”
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: WALES 34-17 ITALY
Wales denied ill-disciplined Italy their best-ever finish with a victory that was far more comfortable than last year’s seventh-place play-off in Georgia which ended with one point between the sides.
Despite playing into a strong wind, Wales led 24-7 at half-time against an Azzurrini side reduced to 13 men approaching the break.
Wales’ first try came off the back of a dominant scrum, scrum-half Harri Morgan picking the ball up at the base before feeding Ryan Conbeer who cut in off his wing to blast through two tackles. Cai Evans converted to add to his earlier penalty as Wales raced into a 10-0 lead.
Rhys Carre’s 14th-minute sin-binning for a high tackle gave the Azzurrini a route back into the match, and winger Giovanni D’Onofrio touched down for the sixth time in the tournament after the ball was swiftly transferred to the left, Antonio Rizzi converting to close the gap to three.
Wales bossed the remainder of the half, though, with flanker Dan Davis squirming through a couple of tackles after good play in the build-up from Evans and Morgan.
Repeated infringements near their own line saw Italy lose flanker Ludovico Manni and then prop Michele Mancini Parri to yellow cards, and after another scrum was wheeled illegally referee Sean Gallagher was left with no option but to award a penalty try on the stroke of half-time.
Italy found themselves down to 12 players for a few seconds in the second half after prop Danilo Fischetti took his place on the overloaded bench for foul play. But Wales were unable to capitalise on their numerical advantage in an error-strewn and scoreless third quarter.
Evans kicked a 62nd-minute penalty to get the scoreboard moving again before replacement hooker Niccolo Taddia burrowed over from a maul to finally give Italy something to cheer about. Wales responded almost immediately with a score for Max Llewellyn after Davis stood up D’Onofrio out wide, Evans converting to maintain his perfect record with the boot.
Another close-range try from Guido Romano gave the final scoreline a less one-sided feel but there no masking that this was not a performance the Azzurrini wanted to finish their campaign with.
Wales captain Ioan Nicholas said: “I'm chuffed for the boys. Our performance was much better than the last few games and so really happy with the performance from the boys. We managed the game a bit better, we managed the wind well and we just made less mistakes.”
Italy coach Fabio Roselli said: “Discipline was not a strong point in this game. Sorry to close with a defeat, but overall we played a good World Championship. The initial goal was to improve on eighth place last season. However, we have shown that we are a good team, managing two victories in the pool stage."
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: SCOTLAND 31-39 GEORGIA
Georgia secured their best-ever finish in U20 Championship history following their five-try victory over Scotland.
After a first win over Ireland at the end of the pool stages and an impressive comeback against Japan in the ninth place semi-final, Ilia Maisuradze’s side continued that form and finished their tournament on a high in ninth place.
The opening tries of the game were carbon copies of each other as both packs rumbled over driving mauls. Georgia’s surge forwards was finished by prop Luka Japaridze, while Scotland hooker Robbie Smith rewarded his pack’s work.
After 13 minutes tempers flared and the result was Gela Aprasidze and Guy Graham being sent to the sin-bin, but both teams were unfazed at losing a player and instead added a try apiece during the sin-bin period.
Winger Logan Trotter created a solo score for Scotland before Georgia’s winger Kote Marjanishvili showed his out and out pace down the right for their second try.
Tedo Abzhandadze’s conversion tied the score once again, but after both teams were returned to their full complement Trotter’s length-of-the-field interception try helped to put Scotland 19-12 ahead at half-time.
The Junior Lelos started the second half with renewed purpose and after drawing level at 19-19 with flanker Tengiz Gigolashvili's try, they pushed themselves into a commanding 36-19 lead with 17 minutes remaining, replacement Guram Gogichashvili and Marjanishvili dotting down.
With victory in sight, Georgia’s energy reserves started to dip slightly and they also lost Sandro Kalmakhelidze to the sin-bin. In contrast, Scotland kept their intensity high and tries by Kyle Rowe and James Miller in a four-minute burst set up a nail-biting final five minutes.
However, with a minute to go Abzhandadze, who had been excellent off the tee, struck another penalty and made sure of another history-creating victory for Georgia on the World Rugby U20 Championship stage.
Georgia flanker Lasha Jaiani said: "The feelings are so positive. We wanted to finish this Championship a high, on a positive note and we’ve just done that. We’ve come ninth for the first time in history, three matches won for the first time in history and we beat two Six Nations countries for the first time in history. So, this is great! This means that next year we’ll aim higher.”
Scotland captain Stafford McDowall said: “I think with 20 minutes to go, a lot of people would have thought we were just going to fade out of the match, but I think it shows the character of this team to comeback and score two score tries. Unfortunately we fell just short in the end. I think we’ve picked up a lot of experience throughout the tournament and I’ve got no doubt that the younger players will take those learnings into next year’s Championship."
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND 39-33 JAPAN
Tommy O'Brien proved Ireland's match-winner with a try three minutes from time to ensure they retained their place in the U20 Championship and condemned Japan to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2019 as a result.
Fly-half Harry Byrne had the chance to open Ireland’s account within the first minute, but his penalty missed the target in the blustery conditions on the annexe pitch.
Japan had the wind behind them in the first half, but also found it tricky to handle at first and it was a wayward lineout that led to Ireland’s first try for scrum-half Jonny Stewart, who sniped around the fringes after a break from Byrne and good work by the forwards.
Hooker Dan Sheehan added a second to give Ireland the perfect start at 12-0, but Japan kept their cool and started to read the conditions better and were ultimately rewarded with driving mauls providing the platform for the two tries that brought them level after 22 minutes.
Japan’s forwards sucked in Ireland’s defence and winger Halatoa Vailea took advantage of the space out wide to score the first, before the second drive accelerated over the line for prop Rento Tsukayama to touch down.
Ireland began to turn up the heat through the hard-carrying of their captain Caelan Doris and after 17 phases of patient build-up, centre Peter Sylvester crossed and Byrne added the conversion for a 22-12 lead at half-time.
Byrne started the second half with three penalties and with a lead of 31-12 Ireland looked to be in complete control, but Japan regrouped and the momentum quickly swung in their favour thanks to some powerful running by winger Siosaia Fifita which earned him two tries in four minutes.
That burst cut the deficit to five points going into the final quarter before Byrne's reliable boot made it a two-score game at 34-26. Japan, though, once again wrestled the momentum back and after opting to kick for the corner twice and being kept out, they were finally rewarded when their passing and handling speed created a second try for Vailea.
Yuto Mori’s conversion made it a one-point game and the prospect of Ireland becoming the highest profile team to be relegated from the U20 Championship loomed large. Fortunately for them, a solid scrum provided the platform for them to find O'Brien, who finished well in the corner. Byrne missed the conversion, giving Japan one final chance to save themselves.
With time running out Ireland again reverted to a training ground move. A solid scrum handed them the platform to push two quick passes wide to wing O’Brien and he finished the try well in the corner.
The conversion attempt from the far-left was missed by Byrne and as a result Japan had one more chance. They worked the ball through 19 phases, trying to find the space to release their wingers, but Ireland held firm, won the turnover and kicked the ball out to seal a hard-fought victory.
Ireland's match-winner Tommy O'Brien said: "Fair play to Japan they stuck in there right to the end and really made us work hard and it was still up for grabs until that final turnover. It was a relief to get over the line, Japan were going through a lot of phases and we managed to get the turnover scrum and thanks to Sean O'Brien for putting me in. It was massively important we got the win to stay in the Championship. There are some guys here who are eligible and it was about playing for them and making sure they had something to play for next year."