England U20 seal back to back JWC titles

England U20s retained the IRB Junior World Championship with a gutsy one-point victory over South Africa in this morning’s final.

England went into the game knowing what success could do for them, the stars of last year’s side are already making waves on the senior scene with Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill, Henry Slade, Scott Wilson, and Ollie Devoto all having involvement with the senior set up, be it with the first team or the Saxons – this crop had a chance to lay down an equally impressive future.

They were up against it though; by common consent the South Africans had been the standout team in the Championship and had had to beat New Zealand twice in order to reach the final – a tricky challenge, as the England senior side would testify to.

It all began rather nervously, with both sides making a few too many errors for their coaches liking, however each managed to get off the mark as their fly halves exchanged penalties, Handre Pollard for South Africa and Billy Burns for England.

What a time it is for the Burns family, Junior World Champion Billy will now make the short hop from Auckland to Hamilton to watch his elder brother, Freddie, start for the senior England side in the third Test against the All Blacks.

Things must be pretty rosy for the Pollard family too though, Handre may not have won the JWC but he did pick up the coveted IRB Junior World Player of the Year award after the game, following in the footsteps of the likes of Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea, and George Ford.

Progression from U20 star to Test starter is never guaranteed but Pollard is surely as close to a sure thing as there is. This was his third Junior World Championship and his second final. In his debut tournament he kicked the tournament winning drop goal as an Under 18 back in 2012, since then he has kicked on brilliantly, starting for the Bulls in Super Rugby. He was certainly a fitting recipient for the award.

He showed his class shortly after the exchange of penalties as some loose play from England in their own half allowed South Africa to turnover possession deep in English territory. Pollard delivered a deft chip behind the defence for the brilliant South African outside centre, Jesse Kriel, to score – with Pollard easily grabbing the extras to put South Africa 10-3 ahead.

At that point it felt as though the game was really South Africa’s to lose, they were that far on top and were in constant possession as they destroyed the English lineout.

However Nick Walshe’s England side are not a group to succumb to panic and with the award of a penalty fully six yards inside their own half, captain Maro Itoje had no hesitation in chucking the tee to their long range specialist, full back Aaron Morris.

To most observers it seemed a pot shot, there was no way that a 19-year old could nail a kick that far. Morris, who had a fine game in the fifteen jersey, had no such qualms as he blasted the kick over with plenty to spare. It still left England 10-6 down but the change in momentum was palpable.

It was pleasing to see Morris get his moment, there is occasional criticism that England age-grade rugby can be a bit of a closed shop, that it is very much England U16 followed by U18, followed by U20. Morris, along with Henry Taylor and Henry Purdy, is proof that that is folly.

Those three played for the England U18 Clubs and Schools side having no made the England U18s, and here they are part of a JWC winning U20 side, providing great encouragement for those in that Clubs & Schools side this year.

Morris and Taylor have particularly shown that there is more than one way to the top. Morris plies his trade with Bedford Blues in the Championship, while Taylor is Loughborough University and plays for their 1st XV in National League one.

Both will shortly be combining with Saracens though, and it was two Saracens who were to provide the outstanding English score of the game. First Nick Tompkins, surely destined for senior representation, slid, powered, and wriggled his way past several defenders to set up fast ball to spread out to his clubmate and Player of the Year nominee Nathan Earle, who made no mistake in touching down to give England a brilliant, if unexpected, 11-10 lead at the break.

It was an unexpected lead though, and England would have known that they had to step up a level if they were to keep hold of their trophy.

The second half began much like the first as Burns and Pollard again exchanged penalties, leaving England with a 14-13 lead, however it was clear that England were now back to playing their game and they looked much more comfortable for it.

Crucially though, England had got on top of their lineout demons and were now able to use it to set up their thunderous maul. It was just as well, ten minutes into the half they found themselves with a lineout on the South African five metre line.

With their re-functioning lineout England set up the perfect maul and surged over the South African line for substitute Joel Conlon, a veteran of the 2013 success, to score.

Burns’ conversion stretched the scores out to 21-13 and suddenly having been under real pressure, England have a comfortable eight point lead and seemed in control.

The South Africans are a quality outfit though and they immediately began to up the pressure with a couple of slick handling moves and from one such move, starting deep inside their own half, they released Kriel to race away and score his second try of the game and what a beauty it was too.

Pollard, of course, landed the conversion to leave England’s lead at just a single point, 21-20, and with the momentum suddenly all on South Africa’s side of the fence.

With the minutes ticking away suddenly images of Pollard winning South Africa the trophy in 2012 were conjured as he repeatedly dropped back into the pocket. Time and time again though England forced him to step back into the line though as their aggressive defence left South Africa on the back foot and under pressure despite having a territorial advantage.

It was backs against the walls stuff from England but it was brilliant defence both for its tenacity and its effectiveness as they managed to reduce Pollard’s efforts to just one long-range drop goal attempt on the angle.

There were still five minutes on the clock but with South Africa now too far away for an attempt at the posts, all England had to do was keep that defensive line in tact, and so they did, forcing the error fro South Africa to set up a scrum for the final play.

The England pack held firm and allowed Taylor to feed Burns to boot the ball away and spark the celebrations.

He, along with the rest of the watching English public, will be hoping his brother is able to repeat that move tomorrow.

Far more exciting though is the prospect of what this remarkable group of IRB Junior World Champions might be achieving at the top level in a few years time.

The future is looking rosy for England.

England U20 XV

15 Aaron Morris (Bedford Blues)
 14 Howard Packman (Northampton Saints) 
13 Nick Tompkins (Saracens)
 12 Harry Sloan (Harlequins) 11 Nathan Earle (Saracens)
 10 Billy Burns (Gloucester) 
9 Henry Taylor (Loughborough University);  1 Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (Northampton Saints) 2 Tom Woolstencroft (Bath)
 3 Paul Hill (Leeds Carnegie)
 4 Maro Itoje (Saracens, captain)
 5 Charlie Ewels (Bath)
 6 Ross Moriarty (Gloucester) 7 Gus Jones (London Wasps)
 8 James Chisholm (Harlequins).

Replacements:  16 Jack Walker (Leeds Carnegie) 
17 Alex Lundberg (London Wasps) 
18 Biyi Alo (Saracens) 
19 Hayden Thompson-Stringer (Saracens)
 20 Joel Conlon (Exeter Chiefs)
 21 Callum Braley (Bristol) 22 Sam Olver (Northampton Saints)
 23 Henry Purdy (Leicester Tigers).

Further Squad: Harry Rudkin (Leicester Tigers)  Cameron Neild (Sale Sharks, injury rep), George Catchpole (Leicester Tigers, injury rep)  Jordan Onojaife (Northampton Saints, injury rep).

Injured: Tom Ellis (Bath)  Jonny Hill (Gloucester)  Harry Thacker (Leicester Tigers)  Tom Fowlie (London Irish).

South Africa U20 XV

15 Warrick Gelant  14 Dan Kriel  13 Jesse Kriel  12 Andre Esterhuizen  11 Sergeal Petersen  10 Handre Pollard (captain)  9 JP Smith;  1 Thomas Du Toit  2 Corniel Els  3 Dayan Van Der Westhuizen  4 JD Schickerling 5 Nico Janse Van Rensburg  6 Jacques Vermeulen  7 Cyle Brink  8 Aidon Davis.

Replacements: 16 Joseph Dweha  17 Pierre Schoeman  18 Wilco Louw  19 Victor Sekekete  20 Jean Luc Du Preez  21 Zee Mkhabela  22 Jean Luc Du Plessis  23 Duhan Van Der Merwe.

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