Matchday four of the U-20 Rugby World Cup saw New Zealand face France and England play South Africa for a place in the final. The Baby Blacks were favourites for their semi-final, whilst the Baby Boks were tipped to earn a place in the finals because they have seemingly improved as the tournament has gone on, while England struggled against Australia in their final group match.
England captain Zac Mercer ran in the first and final try of a physical contest which saw the English overcome their South African counterparts 24-22 in Tbilisi and make it to a record eighth World Cup final at this level, this being their fifth in succession.
The final match of the day began with the French (somewhat awkwardly) holding hands and staring down the Kiwis after the Haka. Two minutes later, the match was underway and it was the New Zealanders who earned the ascendancy, rushing out to a 36-0 lead at half-time. The French responded but it was too little, too late as the Baby Blacks ran out 39-26 winners, making it to their seventh U-20 Rugby World Cup final.
In the first of the fifth place play-offs, Australia faced Italy in what was widely expected to be a one-sided affair. The score at half-time was 14-12 to the Aussies, highlighting how the Italians managed to stifle the Australians’ attempts to unleash their outside backs, namely outside centre Izaia Perese (who still bagged a hat-trick). The Aussies went on to dominate at scrum time and ran in 28 second-half points to win the match 42-19.
Australia will face Scotland for fifth place after the Scots managed to secure a 29-25 win over their old rivals Wales. A somewhat scrappy affair saw the Scottish maintain ascendancy in the match for large periods, with lively winger D’Arcy Graham running in two tries (including the match-winner) which helped secure a first win for Scotland over Wales at a U-20 Rugby World Cup.
After an unexpectedly poor group stage, the Irish u-20 side faced off with their Samoan counterparts for a shot at the ninth place play-off. The Irish ran out to a 19-0 lead in the first 25 minutes. The Irish stretched their lead, eventually winning the match 52-26 and securing their first win of the tournament – at the fourth attempt.
The Georgians also managed to secure their first win of the tournament by beating Argentina 26-25 in Tbilisi, ensuring that the hosts will not have to play in the wooden spoon decider and condemning the Argentinians to a bottom two finish. The Georgians utilised their physicality to out-muscle las year’s third-placed side Los Pumitas, highlighting how the country is continuing to grow and develop its overall skill-set on rugby’s international stage.
The fixtures for the final round of the tournament are as follows:
Final: New Zealand vs England
ThirdPlace Play-off: France vs South Africa
Fifth Place Play-off: Australia vs Scotland
Seventh Place Play-off: Wales vs Italy
Ninth Place Play-off: Ireland vs Georgia
Eleventh Place Play-off: Argentina vs Samoa
All in all, the mid-week action threw up some surprises; namely Georgia’s win over Argentina, Scotland’s comeback against Wales and England holding out to beat the Baby Boks. Going in to the final day of the tournament, it is hard to see England getting a victory over this crop of New Zealand U20 players (especially as five of their starters are currently with the English national squad in Argentina), despite the fact that both teams go into the final undefeated.
Scotland will be relishing the chance to earn their highest-ever finish at a U20 Rugby World Cup, although they are probably the underdogs going into their contest with Australia.
It would be something special for this Georgian U20 side to beat Ireland in their ninth place play-off, with this being the perfect opportunity to do so as both teams have only managed one win over the tournament with Ireland’s pack not looking as formidable as it was last year. It would be Georgia’s first win over Ireland at international level in any age group, and a victory for the Junior Lelos could prove to be the necessary springboard Georgian rugby needs to progress to the upper-echelons of international rugby (i.e. the Six Nations) in the years to come.
Graham Manditsch, Pundit Arena
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