The semi final stage of the 2017 World Rugby U20 Championships took place this afternoon and did not fail to thrill.
The three Group rounds of this wonderful tournament, hosted by Georgia this year had produced some spectacular results and thrilling games of rugby, and the semi final stage was no different.
With three sets of semi finals, 1st-4th place, 5th-8th place, and 9th-12th place, there was plenty to play for across the board too.
England reached their fifth World Rugby U20 Championship final in a row with a 24-22 victory over South Africa. Of those four previous successive finals, England have won three. The only one they have lost came against the Junior All Blacks in 2015.
Unfortunately for England it is the Junior All Blacks that they will be facing in the final this time around, too, after they beat France in one of the most bizarre game of rugby you will see, with a 39-26 final scoreline.
It was truly brutal stuff from the New Zealanders in the first half, who were completely ruthless against a French side who seemed almost to have given up once the game neared the quarter mark.
An early New Zealand try from the wondrous Jordan kicked things off, before a moment of sheer stupidity from Pesenti, the French blindside, should have seen red. Kicking out with his studs at an opposition knee, the referee decided it was just a yellow, but the citing commissioner will surely be hot on that one tomorrow.
Rather than get dragged into any of that nonsense though, New Zealand simply accelerated away, showing a ruthless streak as they scored try after try, capped by a wonderful score for Caleb Clarke following the most outrageous behind the back pass from Carlos Spencer like fly half Tiaan Falcon, for a 29-0 half time lead.
An early second half try took them out to 36-0 ahead, and to all onlookers completely and utterly out of sight. Oh how we should all have known better. This is New Zealand v France, it is never that simple or that boring.
France summoned the spirit of 99 and scored four spectacular tries, with New Zealand all of a sudden looking absolutely shell-shocked. As the game hit the final ten minutes, with France ten points behind, the smart money really felt like it should be on France.
It was only a crucial late turnover from New Zealand with France camped on their line that really ended that feeling, and they capitalised on that shortly after by banging over a penalty to take the final score out to 39-26.
It was a stunning and bizarre game of rugby, the epitome of a game of two halves, and so very typical of what happens when these two nations meet in World Cups.
England’s route to the final was, in contrast, a much more traditional affair. It lacked no little drama or excitement though, requiring a last gasp Zach Mercer try to see themselves across the line, with South Africa leading 22-17 with just five minutes to go.
The game started just as it ended, with Mercer scoring a try just two minutes in. South Africa levelled things shortly after through their own star number 8 Juarno Augustus.
These two seemed almost to be engaged in a private audition dual for Player of the Tournament as they went on to influence the game on a level that few other could get near to.
A Max Malins break fifteen minutes late was a pretty valuable contribution, though, as he scythed through before dropping a delightful offload for Alex Mitchell to cross the whitewash.
Malins added a penalty to the conversion shortly after, giving England a strong looking 17-7 lead as the game moved towards half time.
As the clock ticked red though, who was there but that man Augustus again, smashing his way over for his brace and narrowing the half time gap to a much more manageable 17-12 deficit for the South Africans.
An early second half score then put South Africa ahead, with Curwin Bosch’s conversion making it 19-17.
South Africa’s big pack then began to squeeze the life out of the England side as their set piece began to completely crumble and errors in open play started to creep in. When Bosch added a penalty for a 22-17 lead on 72 minutes, it rather felt as though England’s defence of their title was over.
Someone forgot to tell Zach Mercer though, this talismanic young number 8. He kicked the sequence off on halfway, rounding the defence before offloading to back row colleague Ben Earl, who went rampaging forward.
A few quick phases brought the play infield inside the 22, before the ball round Mercer ten metres out, in front of the posts. With defenders in his way, Mercer simply blasted through with ridiculous power to cross right under the sticks, giving Malins the simplest of conversions to secure the 24-22 victory.
It was a stunning individual piece of play, and an enormous display of heart and spirit from this young England group who had, frankly, been outplayed for much of the game. They now have the chance to secure a second title in a row, a fourth in five years, and an unbeaten U20 season, which has already seen them secure the U20 6 Nations Grand Slam.
All that remains to be answered is; can they beat the Baby Blacks? In one game the Junior All Blacks managed to look both utterly unplayable and worryingly vulnerable. Sunday afternoon will certainly be an exciting couple of hours of rugby!
World Rugby U20 Championship Final: New Zealand v England – Sunday, 3.00pm
3rd Place Play Off: France v South Africa – Sunday, 12.30pm
5th-8th Place Semi Finals
Australia’s last minute loss to England in the final group game in Pool A saw them line up alongside Scotland, Wales, and Italy in the second tier semi finals.
Australia were top seeds though, giving them a game against bottom seeds Italy, who had finished behind Scotland and New Zealand in Pool B, and Australia showed that gulf in style. With a display of real dominance they saw off Italy 42-19, sending the Italians into the 7th place play off and securing their own place in the 5th place play off.
With that game kicking off earlier, Scotland and Wales knew who their potential opponents would be, win or lose. For Scotland there was perhaps more riding on the game, they had qualified as higher seeds than Wales, finishing 2nd in their pool, while Wales were 3rd in theirs. Perhaps more to the point, though, a win would guarantee Scotland their best ever finish at these Championships.
Their previous best was 8th, while Wales were finalists back in 2013, the start of England’s dominant phase.
These two knew plenty about each other heading into the game, they have met twice already this season, with Wales securing the victory in both encounters.
Scotland had got much closer in the second game though, and that trend of improving and a close game continued here. Scotland secured a thrilling and dramatic 29-25 victory.
They had led narrowly through the majority of the game, but a dramatic late Welsh score turned the tables entirely. Once Arwel Robson had landed the conversion, the feeling was that Wales would have that third victory in three against the Scots.
But with less than three minutes on the clock, Darcy Graham, who else, pounced on a loose ball to finish wonderfully for his team, securing the victory and their highest ever finish in these Championships, regardless of the result against Australia on Sunday. Remember that name, Darcy Graham, he has lit up the field every time he has taken to it in this World Rugby U20 Championship.
5th Place Final: Australia v Scotland – Sunday 10.00am
7th Place Final: Wales v Italy – Sunday 2.00pm
9th-12th Place Semi Finals
Last year’s runners-up, Ireland, have had an injury ravaged campaign, and as such found themselves in the lowest level semi finals after losing to Scotland, Italy, and New Zealand in the group stages.
Their opponents were Samoa, and the losers of this game would be facing a relegation play-off against the loser of the other semi finals, Argentina v Georgia.
Ireland managed to avoid the unthinkable scenario of going from runners-up to relegation candidates, beating Samoa comfortably, 52-26.
The other game was far closer, and ended in the most brilliant fashion for the host nation. Coming into this tournament the assumption was that the relegation battle would be Samoa against Georgia, but the hosts pulled off a superb and dramatic 26-25 victory over Argentina, securing a 9th place play off against Ireland while Argentina, who had beaten Georgia in the Group stages, face that relegation nightmare game against Samoa on Sunday.
9th Place Final: Ireland v Georgia – Sunday 11.30am
11th Place Final: Samoa v Argentina – Sunday 9.00am (Loser relegated to Trophy for 2018)
2017 World Rugby U20 Championship Fixtures & Results (all times BST):
Finals – Sunday 18th June
Championship Final – New Zealand v England – 3pm
3rd Place Play Off – South Africa v France – 12.30pm
5th Place Play Off – Australia v Scotland – 10am
7th Place Play Off – Wales v Italy – 2pm
9th Place Play Off – Ireland v Georgia – 11.30am
11th Place Play Off – Argentina v Samoa – 9am
Semi Finals – Tuesday 13th June (1st-4th, 5th-8th, and 9th-12th)
Ireland (10th) 52-26 Samoa (11th)
Argentina (9th) 25-26 Georgia (12th)
Australia (5th) 42-19 Italy (8th)
Scotland (6th) 29-25 Wales (7th)
England (2nd) 24-22 South Africa (3rd)
New Zealand (1st) 39-26 France (4th)
|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 33-26 Samoa||Ireland 28-32 Scotland||Argentina 25-26 France|
|England 34-22 Wales||New Zealand 68-26 Italy||South Africa 38-14 Georgia|
|Round 3 – Thursday 8th June|
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C|
|England 20-19 Australia||Ireland 3-69 New Zealand||Argentina 14-72 South Africa|
|Wales 54-20 Samoa||Scotland 17-16 Italy||France 54-0 Georgia|
2017 World Rugby U20 Championship Final Group Standings: