The dream of winning the World Rugby U20 Championship 2015 remains alive for South Africa, New Zealand, France and England after the climax of the pool stages in Calvisano and Viadana on Wednesday.
2012 champions South Africa are the top seeds for the semi-finals and as such will face two-time defending champions England, who secured the best runner-up spot on point differential from Australia after both failed to add to their 10 points following losses to France and the Junior Springboks respectively.
This is the second year in a row that Australia have missed out on the semi-finals on point differential but they were never at the races against a physical South African outfit who ran in six tries in a commanding 46-13 victory in Calvisano to finish top of Pool B.
That bonus point win meant South Africa finished the pool stages with 15 points, one more than New Zealand who battled to a 25-3 win over Ireland in the Pool C decider and maintain their record of never having failed to reach the semi-finals in U20 Championship history.
France had earlier become the first side to book their place in the semi-finals after beating England 30-18 in Viadana, ensuring they will finish in the top four for only the second time since the U20 Championship began in 2008.
The semi-finals will take place in Calvisano on Monday, 15 June with New Zealand v France up first at 18:30 local time followed by a repeat of the 2014 final between South Africa and England at 20:30. Monday will also see the semi-finals for the positions from fifth to eighth with Australia tackling Scotland and Ireland meeting Wales, and ninth to 12th with Samoa taking on Japan and Argentina facing hosts Italy.
POOL A: ENGLAND 18-30 FRANCE
France had never beaten England on the U20 Championship stage but it was Les Bleuets who made the better start, an early penalty by Thomas Ramos the reward for that early pressure. The full-back made a great break in the 16th minute and looked set to score but George Perkins came from nowhere to haul him down to England’s relief.
Three minutes later France did get their opening try though after Aaron Morris dropped a high ball, allowing captain Lucas Bachelier to capitalise and take it on before sending centre Damian Penaud over. That was the final act before the water break and while Rory Jennings kicked a penalty for the defending champions, an interception saw Penaud race away for his second try of the match.
England did cut the deficit to 17-8 five minutes before half-time when James Chisholm reacted quickest after his side were awarded a penalty from a scrum five metres out, the number eight tapping and powering over scrum-half Anthony Meric to touch down.
The rain began to fall in Viadana as the teams prepared to resume for the second half, but that didn’t seem to bother France as from a lineout five metres out they drove forward with prop Thibault Estorge dropping down over the line with Ramos’s kick making it 24-8. That try, though, simply sparked England’s revival and it was only a great try-saving tackle from Sekou Macalou that denied Howard Packman after the winger collected a cross-field kick and sidestepped two defenders.
The pressure on the French line ultimately told minutes later when England were awarded a penalty try on the hour mark before replacement Lloyd Evans cut the deficit to six with a penalty. They looked the most dangerous of the two sides, but a penalty from Ramos and drop goal from fly-half Lucas Meret booked France’s place in the semi-finals for only the second time and first since 2011.
"We did not know before the match how it would go, we just went onto the field to win - the final score did not matter," said France coach Gerald Bastide. "Our defence was pretty good, we took every occasion to score tonight: interception, carried ball and a turnover. We were clinical. We studied how to block their attacking potential and to maintain the most possession to play our kind of rugby."
England coach Jon Callard added: “We all expected France to be front up. They made our set pieces so difficult; we didn’t get on the front foot. It’s a good learning for us and the boys here. It won’t be the end of the journey for us, we must make a start of a new one.”
POOL A: WALES 66-3 JAPAN
Wales were a team on a mission against Japan, determined to show what they were capable of after losing their opening matches against France and England and secure the bonus point win that would confirm their place in the play-offs for fifth to eighth place.
Ryuji Noguchi had kicked Japan into a third minute lead with a penalty, but from the moment fly-half Jarrod Evans scored the opening try three minutes later there was little doubt that Wales would get the result they wanted, such was their determination to throw the ball around and drag their opponents across the pitch.
Winger Elis-Wyn Benham scored two tries either side of an effort from number eight Tom Phillips with Japan simply unable to handle the young Dragons in the scrum or in open play. Winger Joshua Adams then got his name on the scoreboard on the stroke of half-time to send his side in with a commanding 33-5 lead.
Wales had crossed for two more tries by the time the clock hit 50 minutes in Viadana with second-row Adam Beard and full-back Dafydd Howells - already capped by his country at test level - but to their credit Japan continued to battle hard. Replacement Liam Belcher brought up the half century with 15 minutes to go before flanker Seb Davies powered over and Adams grabbed his second of the match to give Wales a confidence-boosting win to take into the play-offs.
”I think so far this tournament hasn’t gone as expected for us with two losses because of two slow starts and conceding points. We worked on it in training and tonight it was so different. We’re happy about it. Our target is to finish this World Rugby U20s strong and as high as we can. Today we showed our aim to score points," said Wales captain Rory Thornton, who has been named in Wales' training squad for RWC 2015.
Let’s hope to play new sides to face new style of rugby and have new experiences: this is the target of this tournament”.
POOL B: SOUTH AFRICA 46-13 AUSTRALIA
Australia knew, after England's defeat, that they had to secure at least a bonus point to reach the semi-finals, but the writing was on the wall for them when flanker Jacques Vermeulen broke through their defence with ease to score the opening try in only the third minute at the Stadio San Michele.
Andrew Deegan did get Australia on the board with a penalty, only for Brandon Thomson to cancel that out as the Junior Springboks piled on the pressure with their accurate kicking game gaining good ground deep into their opponent's half. That advantage grew to 17-3 just before the water break at the end of the first quarter after prop Ox Nche was on hand to dive over for the second try.
Australia were finding it hard to live with the physical South African forwards and trailed 20-3 at half-time after another Thomson penalty. Australia did enjoy some pressure on the South African line after the restart but a huge tackle from Nche on Deegan saw the ball turned over and they quickly counter-attacked with winger Khanyo Ngcukana running in to score from 30 metres.
With prop Cameron Orr sin-binned for repeated offences in the scrum, Thomson wrapped up the bonus point for South Africa at the hour mark before second-row Jason Jenkins showed a turn of speed to outflank the cover defence and slide over in the corner to make it 39-3. Australia did cross the line through centre Duncan Paia'aua before Junior Springboks winger Leolin Zas had a try ruled out for a forward pass.
Zas did eventually get on the scoreboard a few minutes later but as South Africa finished the match with 13 men after Tyrel Lomax and Dan du Preez were sin-binned, it was Australia who scored a consolation try through captain Andrew Kellaway, the winger's record 12th try on the U20 Championship stage.
“Full credit to South Africa for the way they played today. We certainly went into this match with confidence but a dominant South African forward pack prevented us from building any consistent momentum,” admitted Australia coach Adrian Thompson. “Defensively South Africa constantly asked questions of us for the full 80 minutes and this cost us.
“We’ll regroup from the disappointment of missing out on the semi-finals and look towards our next challenge.”
POOL B: SAMOA 30-24 ITALY
Samoa may have picked up their first victory of the 2015 Championship but the final whistle was tempered with disappointment as they knew the failure to secure the try bonus point meant they missed out on the fifth to eighth place semi-finals, finishing one point behind Scotland in ninth after the pool stages. Had Samoa managed to cross Italy's line just once more then they would have climbed above Scotland and ensured they could finish no lower than their eighth place finish of 2014.
The match in Calvisano had begun at a frenetic place with number eight Renato Giammarioli bringing the crowd to their feet with a try after only four minutes, but Samoa's response was instant with fly-half Orbyn Leger diving over to tie the scores at 7-7.
Winger Malu Falaniko added a penalty and then converted his own try as Samoa moved out to 17-7 lead after 22 minutes of a match in which both sides clearly went into knowing they needed to score the four tries. Italy hit back just after the half hour through flanker Jake Polledri but Matteo Minozzi missed the conversion and a penalty to prevent the Azzurrini from closing the gap.
Another Falaniko penalty sent his side in 20-12 at half-time, but whatever coach Alessandro Troncon said to his charges in the changing rooms had the outcome he was looking for with first hooker Edoardo Ferraro and then replacement Davide Zanetti touching down to give the Azzurrini the try bonus point and a 24-20 lead.
At that point Italy only needed to ensure they won by more than five points to climb above Scotland to guarantee a best ever finish in the Championship, but instead Falaniko cut the deficit to one with another penalty on the hour mark.
Both sides were creating opportunities but Samoa were piling on the pressure near the Italian line and it eventually told. The Azzurrini managed to withstand another assault and even turn the ball over, but they did not protect their kicker and his clearance was charged down and second-row Ben Tuiomanufili happily caught the rebound and dotted down.
They couldn't get the fourth try they needed and the threat of relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2016 hangs over both teams now.
"I'm very proud of my guys, this game was like a rollercoaster. We started by conceding an early try, then we retake the lead, we went down and at the end we won," said Samoa coach Semo Sititi. "Heart-breaking match, but credit to my players, they played for the 80 minutes even when the score wasn't pretty. It's a big demonstration of maturity, we proved that we are a team that deserve to play in this World Cup."
POOL C: NEW ZEALAND 25-3 IRELAND
New Zealand had never lost to Ireland in U20 Championship history, but they were certainly made to work hard for their victory by a plucky Irish outfit in what was a repeat of the third place play-off from 12 months ago. Ireland went into the match knowing that, after France's win over England, they needed to beat the four-time winners of the Championship if they were going to reach the semi-finals for the second time and did make the better start.
Fly-half Joey Carbery only converted one of his three penalty attempts in the first 16 minutes as Ireland continued to frustrate New Zealand and they were left to rue those missed kicks when Otere Black's long miss-pass found winger Tevita Li out wide to score the opening try just two minutes later. Black, who only arrived in Italy last week after being released from Super Rugby duty by the Hurricanes, missed the conversion but then kicked two penalties to give his side an 11-3 advantage at the break.
Ireland had suffered a huge blow with the loss of captain Nick McCarthy to injury before the break but things got worse on the pitch within four minutes of the restart when Li tracked the play well before bursting through an attempted tackle of Josh Murphy to score under the posts.
The winger nearly set up Nathaniel Apa for another try but his pass inside was ruled forward, although a third try for New Zealand did come shortly afterwards when flanker Blake Gibson powered over the line to make it 25-3 at the hour mark. That would prove to be the final score as New Zealand failed to secure the bonus point try and progressed to the semi-finals as second seed, keeping alive hopes of a first title since 2011.
However, coach Scott Robertson knows they will need to step it up to another level if they are to realise that goal, admitting: "We were poor in defending the maul and lineouts. They did a lot of kicking and tactically put pressure on us. We played too much from our 22 and we suffered a lot of pressure. I’m very happy to be in the semi-finals, but we must improve and to be more clinical."
Captain Atu Moli is looking forward to the challenge that France will bring in the semi-finals. "It is going to be a big challenge and one we can't wait for."
POOL C: ARGENTINA 6-19 SCOTLAND
Argentina had suffered heart-breaking losses at the death against both Ireland and New Zealand and based on those performances would have been expected to beat a Scotland side who had yet to find their game in Italy. However, it was Scotland who made the early running with three Blair Kinghorn penalties giving them a 9-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and a man advantage with Lucas Gasparri sin-binned just before the water break.
Los Pumitas started to come more into the game when play resumed but despite creating some chances they only had two Domingo Miotti penalties to show as Scotland went in with a slender 9-6 advantage at half-time. Within four minutes of the restart that had ballooned to 19-6 after another Kinghorn penalty and the opening try through winger Robbie Nairn from a counter-attack.
Alec Coombs wasted a glorious chance to increase Scotland’s lead when he lost the ball with the line at his mercy, but his blushes were quickly spared when they won the resulting scrum against the head and spun the ball wide for winger Richard Galloway to touch down. Argentina continued to battle bravely but it just wasn't their day at the Stadio San Michele in Calvisano.
Scotland threw everything they had into getting that fourth try bonus point that would have guaranteed their place in the fifth to eighth place play-offs for the first time in U20 Championship history, meaning they had to endure a nervous wait to see what others would do before finally being able to smile at the knowledge it was just enough to pip Samoa to eighth place.
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