Pool winners France, Ireland and hosts South Africa are joined in the semi-finals of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 by England as the best runner-up, while Georgia miss out on a top-four position but are still guaranteed their highest finish in the tournament.
Defending champions France will go into the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 semi-finals as the top seeds after a 43-19 victory over Wales saw them top Pool A with the only perfect record in this year’s competition in the Western Cape of South Africa.
France’s reward is a semi-final against England, who edged New Zealand on points difference to claim the best runner-up position after both finished on 10 competition points.
That would have come as a relief to England after they let slip a lead against Australia to draw for the second time in the 2023 Championship, the 22-22 stalemate coming after a 34-34 draw with Ireland on the opening day. New Zealand ran out 62-19 winners over Japan, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul England’s +66 points difference.
Ireland finished top of Pool B after overcoming Fiji 47-27 at Danie Craven Stadium on an emotional day which saw a moment of silence observed before every match following the tragic death of Munster elite performance officer and former Scotland international Greig Oliver, the father of current Ireland U20 Jack Oliver, while he was in South Africa.
Ireland’s squad had also been rocked by the death of 18-year-olds Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall, who were known to many of the players, on the Greek island of Ios over the weekend.
They will play Pool C winners South Africa in the first semi-final on Sunday after the Junior Springboks denied Georgia a first-ever U20 Championship semi-final with a comeback 24-16 victory against Argentina in the final match of the day.
Earlier, Georgia had got the final day of pool matches underway against Italy at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch with all players grateful to see a bright blue sky overhead after pouring rain for much of day two last Thursday.
The Junior Lelos left it until the dying minutes to claim the bonus point try in the 30-17 victory that assured them of a top-two finish in Pool C and their best ever finish in U20 Championship history, having never finished higher than ninth previously.
They then faced a nervous wait for the final match of the day, which Argentina led from the fourth minute at Athlone Sports Stadium until Mastercard Player of the Match Cornè Beets’ two-try salvo in the closing stages denied Georgia a historic place in the semi-finals on the head-to-head rule.
The Italy v Fiji ninth place semi-final will get play underway on Sunday at 11:00 local time (GMT+2) at Paarl Gymnasium, followed by Argentina against Japan at 13:30 and the fifth place semi-final between Georgia and Wales at 16:00.
The other fifth place semi-final between New Zealand and Australia kicks off proceedings at 14:00 at Athlone Sports Stadium in Cape Town before the semi-finals take centre stage with Ireland versus hosts South Africa at 16:30 followed by defending champions France against England at 19:00.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 62-19 JAPAN
New Zealand needed to beat Japan with a bonus point and a margin of 67 points to have any hope of qualifying for the semi-finals, an objective that looked less than likely during a lively opening quarter in Stellenbosch.
Despite New Zealand enjoying the majority of the early possession they were grateful to a third minute try-saving tackle from Tahlor Cahill to deny Taishin Ohshima the opening score.
Cahill’s intervention merely delayed Japan, though, and Rob Penney’s side took the lead less than two minutes later as Ryohei Imano finished following a stunning break from Shot Taira, who added the conversion.
New Zealand hit back through Isaac Hutchinson and then had a Macca Springer score ruled out for a knock-on, before Japan crossed for a second time, through hooker Takashi Omoto.
The try was reward for Japan’s brave decision to go for the corner rather than posts, but it proved the last bit of fortune they earned in the first half.
Some quick thinking from New Zealand flanker Sam Hainsworth-Fa’aofo helped level the scores at 12-12 as he got his hand to the ball as Japan recycled possession from a breakdown on their own line.
It was the first of five tries in the final 15 minutes of the half for New Zealand, as Springer produced a stunning break to score a try that did count before the winger was found by captain Noah Hotham following a quick tap, to score his second.
The six-time champions were keen to keep the pressure on the Japanese line and there was still time for Malachi Wrampling to power over from close range and Taha Kemara to finish off a brilliant team move to send New Zealand into half-time 38-12 in front.
With the bonus point in the bag, New Zealand were set to match England’s 10 competition points but would need to overhaul their superior points difference (+66) to claim the best runners-up spot and a place in the semi-finals. However, their cause wasn’t helped by a further two disallowed tries in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, both for knock-ons.
In between those non-scores, Kemara did dot down his side’s seventh try, cantering over from close range, and New Zealand held a 43-12 lead heading into the final quarter.
Mastercard Player of the Match Springer completed his hat-trick with a little less than 11 minutes to go, and Cooper Flanders finished off to score another try following a brilliant Cody Vai break three minutes later.
Japan refused to cave, though, and made New Zealand’s task even harder as replacement hooker Kouta Nagashima came up with a try following a powerful lineout drive.
New Zealand continued to press and scored a 10th try through Will Stodart, before Japan second-row Ryotaro Nose was shown a yellow card in the final minute.
POOL A: FRANCE 43-19 WALES
Defending champions France moved smoothly into the semi-finals with a dominant six-try victory over plucky Wales at the Athlone Sports Stadium in Cape Town.
France needed only a draw to make sure that they finished top of Pool A but there was never any hint of them settling for that route to the last four as they eased to a third straight bonus point win.
The only blemish on another impressive all-round team performance was that France had hooker Barnabe Massa dismissed in the first half. Massa initially received only a yellow card from Japanese referee Takehito Namekawa but it was subsequently upgraded by the TMO bunker.
France also had second-row Brent Liufau sent to the sin-bin in the closing exchanges but, despite ending the match with 13 players, they were still able to work left-wing Mael Moustin over for the final try.
Moustin had earlier made a decisive intervention at the other end of the pitch when he snaffled a pass close to his own line as Wales pressed for an early try and galloped away before slipping the ball to the supporting Nicolas Depoortere.
Two tries in the space of a minute then dashed any hopes Wales had of recovering from the setback. Powerhouse second-row Posolo Tuilagi’s drive opened up the defence and fly-half Clément Mondinant bounced out of two tackles for the first before a brilliant sweeping attack from deep in France’s half saw Depoortere set up scrum-half Léo Carbonneau for the next.
Wales pulled back a try just before the break when openside flanker Seb Driscoll was driven over from a lineout but France made sure of the bonus point when Mondinat’s deft grubber kick bounced favourably for Depoortere.
Wales played some decent rugby of their own in attack which produced a try for winger Tom Florence but missed tackles cost them at the other end with Mastercard Player of the Match Carbonneau again causing problems and loose-head prop Lino Julien rolling over.
Wales were in with a sniff of a third consecutive try bonus point when wing Harri Houston crossed nine minutes from time but they were again caught short-handed in defence when Moustin exploited an overlap with the final play.
POOL B: IRELAND 47-27 FIJI
Given the emotional turmoil Ireland’s squad will have gone through over the past few days, they can look back on the result as a job well done, especially as Fiji came back at them hard in a game of 12 tries.
Ireland had the bonus point in the bag just after the half-hour mark thanks to a brace from number eight Brian Gleeson and other close-range scores from fellow members of the pack, Danny Sheahan and George Hadden.
Fiji’s forwards also imposed themselves whenever they got an opportunity to carry and it made for a bruising encounter. After a series of pick-and-goes, loose-head prop Moses McGoon went over for his second try in as many matches in between Ireland’s second and third tries.
It was Fiji who closed out the half on top and they were rewarded when Isaiah Ravula squeezed over in the 39th minute. For the first time in the tournament, the nephew of Richie Mo’unga failed to bisect the poles.
Having turned around 26-12 down, Fiji scored two quickfire tries at the start of the second half to get right back in it.
The first came from lineout ball won on their own 10-metre line. Waqa Nalaga spotted a gap in Ireland’s midfield defensive chain and burst through before finding his captain Moti Murray with a good inside pass and the openside had just about enough gas left in the tank to shake off the chasing cover.
Ravula was timed out before he could take his conversion attempt but it was the fly-half’s little nudge kick-through that caused chaos in the Ireland defence and led to Sakenasa Nalasi combining with Pateresio Finau for another good score to close the gap to four points.
Ireland had struggled for continuity in the second half but eventually, they hit back through Gus McCarthy before Andrew Osborne ended the Irish forwards’ dominance of the scoreboard with a first try for the backs.
Fiji then went down to 14 men when winger Sireli Masiwini was carded for an off-the-ball tackle and Ireland scored shortly after, with McCarthy burrowing over for his second.
Fiji had the final say in stoppage with a blindside move that hugged the touchline and ended with Frank Ralogaivau going over.
POOL B: AUSTRALIA 22-22 ENGLAND
Australia denied England the bonus-point victory they needed to finish top of Pool B but their own second-half fightback in a ferocious contest at Athlone Stadium in Cape Town was not quite enough to take the 2019 runners-up through to the semi-finals.
Australia needed a bonus-point win to be in with a chance of progressing and they were still in the hunt for it when replacement centre Harry McLaughlin-Phillips powered over for their third try two minutes from time. But fly-half Jack Bowen was unable to add the conversion and further attacks from the Junior Wallabies in the final minute went unrewarded.
England also missed out on a try bonus point and had to settle for a second draw in the tournament – after drawing 34-34 with Ireland on day one – having lost their shape after hooker Nathan Jibulu powered over for their third try in the 43rd minute.
Errors crept in as England went in search of the bonus point and instead it was Australia who finished the stronger, twice being denied by last-gasp defence before McLaughlin-Phillips scored.
The weather conditions were the best of the tournament so far but there was still a stiff downfield wind which neither side capitalised on.
England played their best rugby into the wind with slick handling producing tries for scrum-half Charlie Bracken, after Jibulu had splintered the defence, and left-wing Cassius Cleaves.
Australia initially struggled to convert pressure into points as England disrupted their lineout but Bowen settled them with a penalty before number eight Leafi Talataina slipped a couple of tackles and powered over from close range for a try that rewarded a period of dominance.
Australia were ahead again at half-time after Bowen kicked a penalty to the corner and hooker Max Craig was driven over with Bowen’s conversion curling in on the breeze.
When Jibulu scored, following excellent work by Mastercard Player of the Match Chandler Cunningham-Smith, it appeared a matter of when, not if, the fourth try would follow.
But England lost Cunnigham-Smith to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle and a penalty from Slevin proved to be their only further score, leaving them to wait to see if the draw was enough to keep their title hopes alive as the best runner-up across the three pools.
POOL C: ITALY 17-30 GEORGIA
Georgia are guaranteed their highest-ever finish in the World Rugby U20 Championship after confirming their place in the top eight with a bonus-point win.
Three of their four tries were scored by hookers and a dominant performance by the forwards as a whole means they are now certain to avoid the relegation play-offs and better their previous best position of ninth, set in 2018.
Italy found themselves on the back foot from the moment inspirational captain David Odiase dropped the kick-off.
Four straight penalties while defending inside their own 22 led to a yellow card to prop Marcos Gallorini and the first try, scored by Georgia’s number eight Nika Lomidze and converted by Petre Khutsishvili.
A 14th-minute penalty from Simone Brisighella got Italy up and running and the Azzurrini took the lead when scrum-half Lorenzo Casilio picked up from the base of a ruck and dotted down from a metre out.
Brisighella’s conversion was good to put Italy 10-7 up but Khutsishvili soon levelled the scores with his first penalty.
Basa Khonelidze touched down at the back of Georgia’s strong rolling maul for his second try in as many games as the Junior Lelos reclaimed the lead.
Brisighella wasted an opportunity to reduce the deficit with a penalty miss from 35 metres whereas Khutsishvili was back on target, having failed to add the conversion to Khonelidze’s try, with his next kick at goal.
Georgia went into half-time holding an 18-10 lead as a result, but down to 14 men following Giorgi Shvelidze’s yellow card for making contact with Italian winger Lorenzo Elettri while he was in the air.
It was all Italy at the start of the second half and they made their man advantage count when after a long period of pressure, the prolific Gallorini scored his eighth try of the year and his third of the tournament. With Brisighella adding the extras, there was only one point in it.
Italy struggled to maintain that momentum when it was back to 15 v 15, though, and fittingly for a scrappy match, it was an error that led to the next score.
Georgia ripped the ball from a defensive Italian lineout and Khonelidze put a disappointing day with his throwing behind him to pounce on the loose ball and wriggle over from close range, Khutsishvili converting.
Any lingering hopes Italy had of staging a comeback were gone when replacement back Matthias Douglas was sin-binned with 10 minutes to go and Georgia capitalised to claim the try bonus point, replacement hooker Tamaz Tchamiashvili scoring out wide.
The final whistle was greeted with huge celebrations from the Georgian players who are guaranteed a top two finish in Pool C regardless of the South Africa v Argentina game later in the day.
SOUTH AFRICA 24-16 ARGENTINA
Both teams needed to win, Argentina with a bonus point, to leapfrog Georgia at the top of Pool C and book the last remaining place in the semi-finals.
And in front of a vociferous crowd at Athlone Sports Stadium it was Argentina who settled into their task quickest, three Valentino Dicapua penalties giving them a 9-0 lead by the 23rd minute.
South Africa’s deficit could have been larger had Los Pumitas captain Eliseo Chiavassa not detached from the jumper on his way to the try-line 12 minutes earlier.
It looked like being a costly let off as the hosts narrowed the deficit to just two points after hooker Juann Else powered over the line from close range.
However, Junior Springboks captain Paul de Villiers had earlier been warned about his team’s growing penalty count and when JF van Heerden gave away a seventh with just under 10 minutes of the half remaining, he was sent to the sin-bin.
Argentina were unable to make their hosts pay from the resulting lineout, as they again infringed, but prop Renzo Zanella did go over before half-time, following a smart break from scrum-half Agustín Moyano and fine support play by centre Nicolás López González. Dicapua converted to give Los Pumitas a 16-7 half-time lead.
South Africa had 40 minutes to prevent their title hopes being extinguished at the pool stage for only the second time in U20 Championship history and they narrowed the deficit to six points with a Jean Smith penalty early in the second half.
The majority of the second half played out amid an anxious atmosphere in Cape Town as both sides battled not to make the mistake that would cost them victory.
Hakeem Kunene thought he had scored South Africa’s second try following a scintillating break from Jurenzo Julius but the winger’s foot was just in touch at the start of his stunning run.
It was ultimately left to Mastercard Player of the Match Beets to break the tension, and Georgian hearts elsewhere, as his two titanic tries in the final 12 minutes rescued a 24-16 win for the hosts and their place in the semi-finals. – WORLD RUGBY