Alan Dickens' reign as England coach got off to a dramatic start on Saturday with flanker Richard Capstick grabbing a last-minute match-winner in a 29-24 victory against France in their U20 Six Nations encounter at the Stade des Alpes.
Capstick went the length of the field to save England at the death after they had threatened to throw away a 24-12 lead deep into the second half.
The two other matches in the opening round, played on Friday, saw defending champions Ireland pushed hard by a Scotland side that was relegated from the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2019 before emerging as 38-26 winners in Cork, while Italy repeated their 2018 success in Colwyn Bay with a 17-7 victory against Wales.
80' | FRA 24 - 29 ENG— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 1, 2020
TRY | UNBELIEVABLE!!! England go the length of the pitch and Richard Capstick is on hand to cross the whitewash and seal the win. Con missed. pic.twitter.com/Pk19fgUakf
England leave it late
England, bidding for their first U20 Six Nations title since 2017 – the year after they were last crowned world champions – looked in control against Les Bleuets as the game entered the final quarter thanks to tries from Rusiate Tuima, Josh Hodge and Tom Roebuck.
Four penalties from the boot of Joris Moura had allowed France to just about keep England in sight and Jordan Joseph’s 11th try in 15 U20 matches got the crowd on their feet. With full-back Cheikh Tiberghien converting, France had cut the deficit to just five points in the final 10 minutes.
Emmanuel Iyogun and Paul Mallez were sent to the sin bin as the closing stages became increasingly frantic, but Les Bleuets claimed the lead for the first time since the 18th minute when winger Ethan Dumortier dashed over with seven minutes to go.
The match looked beyond England, but the visitors showed real never-say-die spirit to force a turnover in their own 22 and score a stunning long-range try.
“We kept on fighting and got the win and that just shows how tight this group are. We knew we would get one more chance and they showed great composure to score it. Whether we had won, lost or drawn the same amount of effort would have gone into it, so to score late on is the icing on the cake,” said Dickens.
“To come away to France and score four tries and play outstandingly well is an amazing achievement. I’m pleased but we need to look forward and we have a tough challenge against Scotland next. We’ll need to recover, prepare and put in another performance.
Crowley delivers for Ireland
Ireland endured a mixed 2019 after failing to back up their U20 Six Nations Grand Slam with a decent showing at the World Rugby U20 Championship, an eighth-place finish in Argentina falling well short of expectations.
Fly-half Jack Crowley was not part of that group and it was his 18-point contribution on debut that got Ireland’s title defence off to an encouraging start.
A tight first half ended with a superb counter-attacking try from man-of-the-match Crowley – his second of the game – as the momentum shift steadied Ireland at 21-12 up.
Scotland had matched Ireland try for try up until that point with Ewan Ashman, top scorer at the U20 Championship last year despite Scotland's relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy, dotting down to cancel out Crowley’s first effort before Jack Blain added another following Thomas Clarkson’s second for Ireland.
After going into the break holding a nine-point advantage, Ireland picked up where they left off with two quick-fire tries from Andrew Smith and Thomas Ahern taking the game beyond Scotland.
To their credit Scotland, despite conceding again to John McKee and losing Rufus McLean to the sin-bin, salvaged a try bonus point with late scores from Nathan Chamberlain and Cameron Scott.
"I thought we were excellent in the first half. We took our tries really well. And we did the same at the start of the second half to put some distance between the teams on the scoreboard,” said Ireland coach Noel McNamara.
"The game broke up then and I was a bit disappointed with how we managed it. Credit to Scotland for coming back. We ended up playing a lot of the game in our own half, and there are huge learnings for us against what was a more experienced Scottish side. It's a good start nonetheless.”
Bay of plenty for Italy
Like Ireland, Italy’s victory over Wales owed much to their fly-half Paolo Garbisi.
Playing in his 11th match for the Azzurrini, 19-year-old Garbisi kicked four penalties as the visitors recovered from the concession of an early try to Sam Costelow.
A close-range effort from Matteo Drudi got the visitors on the scoreboard and Garbisi did the rest to earn Italy a victory that gives them real hope for the rest of the campaign.
In round two, Italy travel to France, Ireland are at home to Wales and Scotland welcome England to Myreside, with all three games taking place on Friday .
Photo credit: INPHO/James Crombie