England sealed their third World Rugby U20 Championship title with a stunning 45-21 victory over Ireland at the AJ Bell Stadium.
It is quite a turnaround for the host nation, who just a few short months ago finished 5th in the U20 RBS 6 Nations, having only beaten Italy. Fast forward a few months and under the stewardship of their new Head Coach, Martin Haag, they are a different side, full of confidence and swagger, and with a ruthless edge to them.
That was perhaps at its most evidence in this final as they ran home six tries against an Ireland side who have impressed at every juncture in this World Rugby U20 Championship.
The cast list will shortly become household names, one only needs to look at what some of England’s U20 winners from 2013 and 2014 have gone on to achieve, Maro itoje and Anthony Watson being just two of those names. From the current crop there are already some who are well on their way major recognition, not least Northampton Saints Harry Mallinder and Harlequins’ Joe Marchant. Forget Premiership rugby, these two could be on the International stage very, very soon – and do not discount some others making that jump in double time as well.
England were a team on fire right form the off, and began by making mincemeat of the Irish scrum. An Irish scrum that has been dominant all tournament, with loosehead Andrew Porter and hooker Adam McBurney almost permanent fixtures in World Rugby’s round by round ‘Dream Teams’.
That scrum domination was rewarded with points after twenty minutes as England number 8 Callum Chick crashed over as the other seven forwards blasted through the Irish set piece.
It put England 14-0 up, with Joe Marchant having scored after just twelve minutes with a delightful break from thirty metres out, treating everyone to a show of his swerving hips and dancing feet.
Mallinder, naturally, converted both, so good has his kicking been that to those on the sidelines it seems almost impossible for him to miss.
As the game ticked past half an hour old, England grabbed their third, with Worcester Warriors’ Huw Taylor, another with a very bright future indeed, scoring from close range after a half break from Mallinder saw London Irish’s Johnny Williams burst away before feeding the supporting former Old Swinford Hospital skipper.
With Mallinder converting, England were ticking towards half time with a 21-0 lead. Even at this stage it felt as though Ireland would need a try before half time in order to stay in the game, such was the momentum that England built through the half.
Try as they might, though, Ireland could not get that vital score. England’s doggedness in defence, or as Martin Haag describes it ‘attack without the ball’, has been a real feature of their game, and so it proved in that final ten minutes of the half.
Such an aggressive and dominant defence relies on teamwork and togetherness, something that has to be built. It is one of the less recognised aspects of this tremendous run of success that England U20 have had over the last few years, that team spirit. England’s performance pathway means that these players know each other inside out, they are friends and have been playing together since their mid teens, they really are playing for each other.
It was something that Mallinder acknowledged after the game, saying:
“It’s obviously an honour to play for your club, but it’s great to come together with your mates who you’ve played through the age-groups with.”
If keeping Ireland out at the end of the second half was key, two minutes into the second half England began hammering the nails into the coffin, scoring a beautiful try as Joe Marchant burst down the left wing before releasing Williams, who in turn sent Mallinder strolling away and underneath the posts.
This Ireland side have spirit of their own though, any side that beats New Zealand in this championship has spirit, and that spirit shone though as the game entered a bizarre period with Adam McBurney quickly responding to Mallinder’s score with one for Ireland, before they then let Mallinder slip for his second score two minutes later, only for Shane Daly to then pull another back for Ireland just three minutes later.
It was a bizarre period, and for a fleeting moment it seemed as though Ireland might just mount a mini comeback, having turned 28-0 into 35-14. A yellow card for scrum half Stephen Kerins with twenty minutes to go perhaps was the death knell on that though, particularly when Mallinder banged over the resulting penalty from forty yards.
Having already collected his brace, Mallinder went back to playing the provider as he looked up and delivered a delightful crossfield kick for Joe Marchant to secure his own brace, a trademark hip wiggle taking him away from the flailing Irish defender.
With just ten mintues left, England looked to just see the game out as the wider squad gathered on the touchline, ready to celebrate. However this spirited, proud, Irish side were not about to let this game drift away without showing their true selves. It was fitting too that it was number 8 Max Deegan, a nominee for the Player of the Tournament award, who scored the final try of the game.
Deegan is a player surely destined for the top, the sort of man whom you can imagine scored that final try out of sheer determination to claw back a bit of pride for his side.
Ultimately though, the plaudits this evening must all go to England, who were truly outstanding. They have had some superb performances in this tournament, but this was arguably their greatest, and that is quite some achievement, it is a rare feat for any side to turn in their best in a final, let alone at such an inexperienced stage of their careers.
That, perhaps, is the key with this group. In U20 terms they are not so inexperienced, the likes of Mallinder, Marchant, Williams, and Will Evans on the flank, have been playing regular Premiership rugby. This is a talented group who have been given a chance by their clubs, and today they thanked them for that chance with a superb display from 1 to 23 in the white of England.
They now join the likes of Watson, Itoje, Nowell, and Clifford, 3-0 series winners in Australia for the senior side, as U20 World Champions.
Quite the exclusive club.
Full Time: England U20 45-21 Ireland U20
England U20 XV:
15 Max Malins (Saracens)
14 Sam Aspland-Robinson (Harlequins)
13 Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
12 Johnny Williams (London Irish)
11 Matt Gallagher (Saracens)
10 Harry Mallinder – Captain (Northampton Saints)
9 Max Green (Yorkshire Carnegie)
1 Lewis Boyce (Yorkshire Carnegie)
2 Jack Singleton (Worcester Warriors)
3 Billy Walker (Saracens)
4 Stan South (Harlequins)
5 Huw Taylor (Worcester Warriors)
6 George Nott (Sale Sharks)
7 Will Evans (Leicester Tigers)
8 Callum Chick (Newcastle Falcons)
16 Charlie Piper (Harlequins)
17 Tom West (Wasps)
18 Will Stuart (Wasps)
19 Andrew Kitchener (Worcester Warriors)
20 Jack Willis (Wasps)
21 Harry Randall (Gloucester Rugby)
22 Max Wright (Yorkshire Carnegie)
23 Ollie Thorley (Gloucester Rugby)
Ireland U20 XV
15 Jacob Stockdale (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
14 Matthew Byrne (Terenure College/Leinster)
13 Shane Daly (Cork Constitution/Munster)
12 Conor O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
11 Hugo Keenan (UCD/Leinster)
10 Johnny McPhillips (Queen’s University/Ulster)
9 Stephen Kerins (Sligo/Connacht)
1 Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster)
2 Adam McBurney (Ballymena/Ulster)
3 Ben Betts (Young Munster/Munster)
4 Sean O’Connor (Cashel/Munster)
5 James Ryan (Lansdowne/Leinster) (capt)
6 Greg Jones (UCD/Leinster)
7 David Aspil (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
8 Max Deegan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
16 Vincent O’Brien (Cork Constitution/Munster)
17 James Bollard (Dublin University/Leinster)
18 Adam Coyle (Naas/Leinster)
19 Evan Mintern (Cork Constitution/Munster)
20 Kelvin Brown (Shannon/Munster)
21 Niall Saunders (Harlequins/Exiles)
22 Brett Connon (Newcastle Falcons/Exiles)
23 Jimmy O’Brien (UCD/Leinster)
World Rugby U20 Championship Finals Day Results:
Final – Ireland 21-45 England
3rd Place Play-Off – Argentina 49-19 South Africa
5th Place Play-Off – New Zealand 55-24 Australia
7th Place Play-Off – Wales 42-19 Scotland
9th Place Play-Off – Georgia 24-27 France
11th Place Play-Off – Italy 41-17 Japan
World Rugby U20 Championship Final Standings:
4 South Africa
5 New Zealand
*Japan relegated to the 2017 World Rugby U20 Trophy, with Samoa promoted to next year’s U20 Championship, having won this year’s Trophy.