The 2017 World Rugby U20 Championships kicked off today in fine style, with some brilliant stories across the pools.
Georgia are this year’s host nation, but are expected to be in a real scrap for their World Championship status, rather than the lower tiered World Trophy, with pre-tournament expectations being that they will face Samoa in what amounts to a play off on finals day to stay in the competition.
On today’s evidence though, they might fancy their chances of a higher placed finished after they gave a very good Argentina side a real fright, eventually losing 37-26, but staying right in the hunt throughout.
Defending champions England are in Pool A and they certainly played like it, trouncing Samoa 74-17. It was a scoreline that, frankly, slightly flattered the Samoans, with a couple of late scores with England down to 14 men giving the scoreboard a slightly healthier look.
That 14 man period is perhaps the big worry for England though, for it was not due to a yellow card but in fact due to injury. Prior to the game Theo Brophy-Clews, who was set to skipper the side, had to pull out with an injury. That meant that Max Malins was promoted to start at fly half, with Max Wright coming onto the bench.
As the game wore on there were further backline injuries as outside centre Dom Morris and winger Ali Crossdale, another potential outside half option, both pulled up with hamstring injuries.
Those injuries, more than the result, may be the big point for discussion amongst Ian Vass and his coaching team in the wake of this game.
On the game though, it was a superb and clinical performance from England, with number 8 and captain Zach Mercer once again leading from the front with a powerful and cultured display, all done in just a little over 40 minutes before he was quite sensibly wrapped up in cotton wool and taken off.
Samoa were poor, and look unlikely to be able to retain their status in the competition for next year, but that should not take away from England who put them to the sword.
Tougher challenges await though, with England facing Wales at 17.30 on Sunday and Australia at 17.30 a week on Thursday in what is a very tough pair of games.
The other game in Pool A saw Australia and Wales meet, where they played out what was arguably the most high quality game of rugby of the day, much to the delight of the organisers, you suspect, who had put it in the prime time evening slot.
Both sides knew a defeat could be fatal to their chances of a semi final spot and played with an intensity to match that desperation.
Twice Australia came back from being a try down to take the lead, thanks to a useful earlier penalty. However when Wales landed a drop goal with just three minutes on the clock it seemed as though we could be in for another historic draw on this most dramatic of days.
The drama was not done yet though, and with just a minute to play Perese came bursting though for Australia from the outside centre channel, for a dramatic try, securing the 24-17 victory for his side in style. It was breathless stuff, and typical of a wonderful day of U20 rugby.
Ireland reached last year’s final, and though they are in a tough pool with Italy, New Zealand, and Scotland, they would have hoped to have had another shot at getting that far again.
Pre-tournament injuries to key players were a worry, but nothing like as much of a worry as today’s 22-21 defeat to Italy, which all but ends Ireland’s hopes of reaching the main semi finals, with a win over New Zealand now likely to be needed even to be in the hunt for a best runners up spot.
For Italy it was a tremendous result though, and though New Zealand on Sunday will likely be a challenge to far, they will look ahead to next Thursday’s game against Scotland an fancy that as one in which they could nick a result, and possibly an outside chance of a semi final spot. Not bad ambitions for a side who had not won a pool game since 2014.
The other game in Pool B saw New Zealand beat Scotland 42-20, however it was a far closer game than the scoreline suggests. It was a scrappy old affair, particularly in the first half, with the Baby Blacks heading in at half time just 19-10 ahead.
New Zealand eventually pulled away, but not without some fair defiance from the young Scots, who will fancy their chances of victory against Ireland and Italy and a shot at a best runners up semi final spot. New Zealand will have their focus firmly on making sure that they secure top spot in this group, but they know that come the semi finals they will need to step up.
Pool C saw some stunning action, including the first ever Group stage draw in World U20 Championship history. France led South Africa 23-16 heading into the final play of the game, only for South Africa to score in the left hand corner to make it 23-21. Showing nerves of steel, South African fly half Curwin Bosch landed an expert conversion to level the scores.
It was an outstanding comeback and a brilliant game of rugby, and if Bosch’s nerves under pressure showed just why he has already gained plenty of Super Rugby experience, France fly half Romain Ntamack, son of legend Emile, showed just why he is so highly rated. The youngster, who only turned 18 a couple of months ago, was a calm and brilliant presence, banging over drop goals with a composure beyond his years.
Thrilling as that draw was though, it has really opened the door for Argentina to take top spot in the group, which they duly did with their bonus point 37-26 win over Georgia. Georgia made them work so hard for it though, and showed a passion that explains just why they manage to get 50,000 in to watch their seniors against the likes of Romania. They could yet spring a surprise.
The draw mixes this group up though, should Argentina beat both France and South Africa, you would expect both of those to sides to miss out on the semis, but were they both to beat Argentina, they might well both make it through to the semi finals, as any other best runners up contenders will have almost certainly lost a game.
An intriguing few weeks lie ahead!
2017 World Rugby U20 Championship Fixtures & Results (all times BST):
|Round 1 – Wednesday 31st May|
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C|
|Australia 24-17 Wales||Ireland 21-22 Italy||Argentina 37-26 Georgia|
|England 74-17 Samoa||New Zealand 42-20 Scotland||South Africa 23-23 France|
|Round 2 – Sunday 4th June|
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C|
|Australia v Samoa – 12.30pm||Ireland v Scotland – 10am||Argentina v France – 10am|
|England v Wales – 5.30pm||New Zealand v Italy – 12.30pm||South Africa v Georgia – 3pm|
|Round 3 – Thursday 8th June|
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C|
|England v Australia – 5.30pm||Ireland v New Zealand – 12.30pm||Argentina v South Africa – 12.30pm|
|Wales v Samoa – 10am||Scotland v Italy – 10am||France v Georgia – 3pm|
Semi Finals – Tuesday 13th June
Finals – Sunday 18th June
2017 World Rugby U20 Championship Group Standings:
Home Nations’ Lineups:
England U20 XV
15 Tom Parton (London Irish)
14 Ali Crossdale (Saracens)
13 Dominic Morris (Saracens)
12 Will Butler (Worcester Warriors)
11 Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins)
10 Max Malins (Saracens)
9 Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints)
1 Ollie Dawe (Bristol Rugby)
2 Jamie Blamire (Newcastle Falcons)
3 Marcus Street (Exeter Chiefs)
4 Josh Caulfield (Exeter Chiefs)
5 Dino Lamb (Harlequins)
6 Max Davies (Newcastle Falcons)
7 Josh Bayliss (Bath Rugby)
8 Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby, captain)
Replacements: 16 Henry Walker (Gloucester Rugby), 17 Alex Seville (Gloucester Rugby), 18 Ciaran Knight (Gloucester Rugby), 19 Justin Clegg (Worcester Warriors), 20 Joe Mullis (Gloucester Rugby), 21 Harry Randall (Gloucester Rugby), 22 Max Wright (Yorkshire Carnegie), 23 Jacob Umaga (Wasps).
Ireland U20 XV
15 Jack Kelly (Dublin University/Leinster)
14 Colm Hogan (Dublin University/Munster)
13 Gavin Mullin (UCD/Leinster)
12 Ciaran Frawley (UCD/Leinster)
11 Calvin Nash (Young Munster/Munster)
10 Conor Dean (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
9 Jonny Stewart (Queen’s University/Ulster)
1 Joey Conway (UL Bohemians/Munster)
2 Diarmuid Barron (Garryowen/Munster)
3 Charlie Connolly (Dublin University/Leinster)
4 Fineen Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster)
5 Oisin Dowling (Lansdowne/Leinster)
6 Marcus Rea (Queen’s University/Ulster)
7 Paul Boyle (Lansdowne/Leinster, captain)
8 Gavin Coombes (Young Munster/Munster)
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher (UCD/Leinster), 17 Greg McGrath (Lansdowne/Leinster), 18 Peter Cooper (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster), 19 Jack Regan (UCD/Leinster), 20 Sean Masterson (Corinthians/Connacht), 21 Jack Stafford (Shannon/Munster), 22 Angus Curtis (Queen’s University/Ulster), 23 Alan Tynan (Young Munster/Munster).
Scotland U20 XV:
15 Blair Kinghorn
14 Darcy Graham
13 Lewis Berg
12 Stafford McDowall
11 Ross McCann
10 Connor Eastgate
9 Charlie Shiel
1 George Thornton
2 Fraser Renwick
3 Fergus Bradbury
4 Alex Craig
5 Callum Hunter-Hill (captain)
6 Luke Crosbie
7 Thomas Gordon
8 Matt Fagerson
Replacements: 16 Robbie Smith, 17 Ross Dunbar, 18 Adam Nicol, 19 Bruce Flockhart, 20 Tom Dodd, 21 Ruaridh Dawson, 22 Josh Henderson, 23 Robbie Nairn.
Wales U20 XV:
15 Will Talbot-Davies (Newport Gwent Dragons)
14 Owen Lane (Cardiff Blues)
13 Ioan Nicholas (Scarlets)
12 Cameron Lewis (Cardiff Blues)
11 Ryan Conbeer (Scarlets)
10 Arwel Robson (Newport Gwent Dragons)
9 Dane Blacker (Cardiff Blues)
1 Rhys Carre (Cardiff Blues)
2 Ellis Shipp (Newport Gwent Dragons)
3 Kieron Assiratti (Cardiff Blues)
4 Will Griffiths (Ospreys)
5 Callum Bradbury (Cardiff Blues)
6 Shane Lewis-Hughes (Cardiff Blues)
7 Will Jones (Ospreys, captain)
8 James Botham (Cardiff Blues)
Replacements: 16 Owen Hughes (Newport Gwent Dragons), 17 Tom Mably (Cardiff Blues), 18 Scott Jenkins (Scarlets), 19 Sean Moore (Pontypridd), 20 Aled Ward (Cardiff Blues), 21 Reuben Morgan-Williams (Ospreys), 22 Ben Jones (Cardiff Blues), 23 Joe Goodchild (Newport Gwent Dragons).