England got their bid for a third consecutive World Rugby U20 Championship title off to a winning start with a 59-7 defeat of Japan, although they didn't have it all their own way in the second half thanks to the "passion and commitment" of their opponents in the words of captain Charlie Ewels.
New Zealand recorded the biggest win on the opening day with a 68-10 defeat of Scotland, while by contrast Ireland left it until the final kick of the match to snatch an 18-16 victory over Argentina in the other Pool C match in Parma.
They top their respective pools with 2014 runners-up South Africa top of Pool B after a hard-fought 33-5 win over hosts Italy, albeit only on point differential from Australia, the 34-22 conquerors of Samoa in a match which saw captain Andrew Kellaway become the all-time leading try-scorer in the U20 Championship in his own right with 11.
The other victorious side on day one were France, who capitalised on a fast-start to eventually overcome Wales 19-10.
The action continues on Saturday, 6 June when England face Wales and France tackle Japan in Pool A, Australia take on hosts Italy and South Africa face Samoa in Pool B and New Zealand tackle Argentina and Scotland face Ireland in Pool C.
POOL A - ENGLAND 59-7 JAPAN
There were just 34 seconds on the clock when England winger George Perkins sliced through the Japan defence with ease and the bonus point had been wrapped up by the 13th minute after hooker Jack Walker, scrum-half Stuart Townsend and full-back Aaron Morris all touched down.
"They are bigger than us, stronger than us, but we played with the heart. "
Morris added a second before the first quarter was up but Japan then began to find their feet in what was their first U20 Championship match since 2009, making forays into England’s half before a mistake at the breakdown allowed Townsend to pick up and race away unchallenged.
England added a seventh try before half-time when winger Tom Howe ran onto a little chip kick through to send the defending champions in with a commanding 45-0 lead at half-time. Things got worse for Japan when half-time replacement Sam Skinner dotted down for another England try two minutes after the restart.
However, Japan refused to buckle under the swathes of England attack and were finally for their passion and heart on the hour mark when prolonged pressure saw them awarded a penalty try after England collapsed a maul.
Japan kept creating opportunities and managed to keep England out until, with time up on the clock, second-row Will Witty marked his under-20 debut with a try to wrap up a 59-7 victory that puts the defending champions above France at the top of Pool A.
“We were very brave on the pitch today,” number eight Tevita Tatafu said afterwards. “They are bigger than us, stronger than us, but we played with the heart. We are small but spirited, and we are happy about today's performance.”
POOL A: FRANCE 19-10 WALES
France had earlier raced out of the blocks at the Stadio San Michele, scoring two tries in the first 13 minutes through winger Arthur Bonneval and full-back Thomas Ramos, the latter converting his own try to leave Wales trailing 12-0.
Les Bleuets were attacking the Welsh defence at will with Ramos dangerous every time he got his hands on the ball, but Wales finally got on the board with a penalty for Daniel Jones on the half hour after lengthy treatment on a knee injury for captain Rory Thornton.
Anthony Meric thought he had scored France’s third try of the match only to have it ruled out and Ramos missed then two penalty attempts to increase the advantage early in the second half. However, he then set in motion a move that went almost the length of the pitch for Lucas Blanc to dot down (see video on left).
Ramos found centre Damian Penaud – the son of former France international Alain – who raced down the left touchline before sending Blanc over with the conversion making it 19-3 and seemingly a killer blow for Wales’ hopes of a winning start to the Championship.
However, Wales were not ready to throw in the towel and Garyn Smith powered over by the posts, the centre coming at pace onto a pass following a five-metre scrum. The score revitalised Wales, but try as they did they were unable to claw back any more points, being held up once over the line, and it was only some impressive defence which kept France from adding to the 19-10 score-line.
“It is a very important win, we started well and we scored early in the match, then in the second half there was a good reaction from Wales and we struggled also for the difficult weather conditions because it was very hot today,” said France manager France manager Fabien Pelous. “The most important thing was the win, we played against them in the Six Nations but today was harder because in the second half they were able to play their rugby.”
POOL B: AUSTRLAIA 34-22 SAMOA
For the second time in a month Australia had to dig deep to overcome the challenge of a spirited Samoan side who fought back time and time again, something that came as no surprise to their captain Andrew Kellaway.
“It was a bit scrappy but all in all it was a good win. We’ll go away and work on what we need to work on for the next game but all in all we are happy with the win,” Kellaway said after scoring the final try in the win (see video below). “We really respected Samoa and certainly expected them to go the full 80.”
Andrew Deegan has kicked Australia into a first minute lead before flanker Michael Gunn dotted down for the game’s opening try to make it 8-0 after 10 minutes. Fly-half Josh Ioane opened Samoa’s account with a penalty before lively full-back Jonah Placid increased Australia’s lead with a second try.
A yellow card for second-row Lukhan Lealaiaulolo-Tui four minutes before the break proved costly for Australia with Samoa turning over possession and a powerful run by captain Joshua Dowsing ultimately resulting in a try for winger Trent Winterstein.
That made it 15-8 to Australia at half-time and it was their turn then to capitalise on a yellow card, Deegan touching down within a minute of Samoa prop Mike Tamoaieta’s exit. Once restored to a full complement of players, Samoa again hit back, Dowsing at the back of a driving maul to dot down.
Australia’s advantage was restored within minutes with Placid’s second try of the night, but once more Samoa refused to accept defeat, replacement prop Jarred Adams grounding the ball against the post to cut the deficit to 27-22 with eight minutes remaining.
While Samoa were dreaming of the comeback win it was left to Kellaway to make certain of victory for Australia, although they sit second behind 2014 runners-up South Africa in Pool B on point differential after they battled to a 33-5 win over Italy.
“It was a physical match, but I think we could play better than we did tonight,” insisted Samoa coach Semo Sititi. “We were expecting this game from Australia, the point was we didn’t have possession in the first 20 minutes, just defending. They lived by our mistakes. It’s disappointing, we targeted this game, but now we must look forward South Africa.”
POOL B: SOUTH AFRICA 33-5 ITALY
Italy were under no illusions as to the size of the task awaiting them with South Africa their first opponents, but they gave the Calvisano crowd cause to cheer after only 11 minutes when Yannick Agbasse raced 70 metres down the line to score a first try against their opponents in U20 Championship history.
The South Africans hit back within minutes when hooker Jan van der Merwe crashed over from close range, but they continually found the Italians hard to break down in the hot conditions as they went in search of the convincing victory that many would have predicted for them before kick-off.
The Junior Springboks twice spilled the ball with the try-line begging, but a yellow card for Italian second-row Davide Zanetti in the 33rd minute proved decisive with the Junior Springboks scoring two tries in his absence, the first a penalty try and the second coming when captain Hanro Liebenberg dived on a loose ball to make it 21-5 at half-time.
The minimum South Africa would have been looking for from the match was a bonus-point win but with a combination of good Italian defence and some indecisive play from the Junior Springboks it took them until the 65th minute to score a fourth try, through flanker Rikus Bothma.
South Africa finished the match with 14-men after RG Snyman was sin-binned but they were still able to cross the try-line one final time, Frans van Wyk – who had provided some much-needed spark off the bench – touching down.
“It was a rusty start for us and we have no excuses,” admitted Liebenberg. “Italy always play fast running rugby and did well. We can improve our lineouts and ball control, although the ball was wet and it was difficult conditions. We did better in the second half, but the first half was poor.”
POOL C: NEW ZEALAND 68-10 SCOTLAND
New Zealand’s bid to lift the distinctive trophy for the first time since 2011 began slowly with a penalty from Mitchell Hunt, and Scotland took full advantage of Jack Goodhue’s yellow card to move out to a 10-3 lead with a Rory Hutchinson penalty and Lewis Carmichael try.
Replays suggested that Carmichael appeared to have dropped the ball before grounding, but nonetheless it gave the Scots the start they had been hoping for against the four-time winners of the U20 Championship.
It also sparked New Zealand into life and they hit back with two tries in quick succession through full-back George Bridge and winger Tevita Li, the latter coasting through the Scottish defence to give his side the lead for the first time.
Hunt added another penalty before the impressive Akira Ioane charged over to secure the bonus point before half-time to make it 27-10. Within a minute of the restart, New Zealand’s lead was increased thanks to a try from number eight Blake Gibson.
Archie Russell – the younger brother of Scotland international Finn – was sin-binned in the 47th minute and New Zealand took full advantage, Mitchell Karpik marking his 20th birthday with a try before Goodhue touched down for number six.
The final quarter saw New Zealand cross for three more tries through Geoffrey Cridge, Hunt and TJ Faiane to record the biggest win of the opening day of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2015, leaving New Zealand top of the pool with five points, one more than Ireland.
“We couldn’t get any momentum,” admitted New Zealand coach Scott Robertson. “It was off the back of probably giving away penalties, little mistakes. There were a lot of penalties … But the amount of errors that we made just compounded us. They were good, they defended well and mauled well, they held onto the ball well and they put under pressure so good on Scotland.”
POOL C: IRELAND 18-16 ARGENTINA
Tomas Quinlan had earlier been Ireland’s hero at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, the replacement holding his nerve to slot a penalty from the right touchline with time up on the clock to snatch an 18-16 victory over Argentina (see video below).
Argentina looked to have sneaked the victory in the first meeting between the two sides at the U20 Championship since 2010 when full-back Emiliano Boffelli kicked a 77th minute penalty, Los Pumitas finally earning a reward for a period of pressure having already been held up over the line.
Ireland, semi-finalists in 2014, would have been disappointed to have only led 9-6 at half-time, thanks to three penalties from fly-half Joey Carbery, who stepped seamlessly into the No.10 shirt after the loss of key man Ross Byrne to injury last week.
The Irish had enjoyed the best attacking opportunities, their backline creating chances on both flanks but handling errors and last-ditch Argentine tackling kept them at bay with Los Pumitas’ replying with a penalty and drop goal from fly-half Domingo Miotti.
Argentina made the best possible start to the second half, a break by captain Bautista Ezcurra resulting in the ball being recycled for replacement Santiago Portillo to find space to squeeze over in the corner. Miotti slotted the conversion but two Carbery penalties pushed Ireland back ahead 15-13.
"I am happy with the result!" admitted Ireland coach Nigel Carolan. "I was certainly happy with the amount of opportunities we created, particularly in the first half, and if it was represented on the scoreboard it might have been a different game. I thought the character our team showed at the end to get back to get the penalty I thought it was tremendous work rate and effort."
Argentina captain Bautista Ezcurra added: "It was a very tough game, a lot of physicality, all the contact and rucks were very disputed. I think we were not too good in the lineouts maybe, we didn't have a lot of possession in the first half, we had to make a huge effort in defence but in the end things like this happen. For the guys it is very disappointing, but in a World Cup you have to turn page right away and think about New Zealand. It is tough but we have to do that."
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