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Four talking points after World Rugby U20 Championship match day two

France players react to their dramatic defeat by New Zealand (Photo by Nic Bothma/World Rugby)

The World Rugby U20 Championship royally lived up to its reputation again on Thursday, matches in Stellenbosch and Athlone showcasing age-grade rugby at its finest. There were thrilling finishes, loads of excellent tries and even the novelty of needing a review to judge whether the final kick of a match had curled inside the posts.

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That was a new one for experienced TMO Ben Whitehouse and the decision that the ball from Rico Simpson’s last-gasp kick had dissected the uprights left New Zealand as just one of three unbeaten teams remaining heading into next Tuesday’s final round of pool matches. Here are the RugbyPass talking points from match day two:

Georgian appeal
The World Rugby U20 Championship isn’t an easy tournament to report on in the early rounds. With the matches taking place simultaneously at two venues, the games kicking off at 2pm, 4:30pm and 7pm, not only is there little time to catch a breath and reflect before the next one starts, there is always the danger that you have picked the wrong venue to be at.

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RugbyPass struck it lucky in deciding to attend the suite of games taking place in Stellenbosch as Ireland-Georgia and France-New Zealand produced dramatic endings, while the South Africa-Argentina clash was memorable for the different reason that the South Americans took off like Usain Bolt and never let up despite the heavy rain.

The wonder of RugbyPass TV has proven invaluable in keeping tabs on the action at the other venue and while the wins for Wales and England over Spain and Fiji, the two weakest teams at the tournament, were totally expected, Italy brilliantly caused a deserved shock by taking down the Junior Wallabies 17-12.

It’s not their first upset. In round two last year, they caught South Africa napping in Paarl but consistency continues to be elusive judging by their 15-55 hammering last Saturday by Ireland which means they are not in the shake-up for semi-final qualification.

Inconsistency is also the shortcoming that has frustratingly left Georgia coming up short in Cape Town. They were leading Australia 8-6 until a 20-minute red card elapsed and they then ‘lost’ the remaining 33 minutes 3-29 to be beaten 11-35.

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Their performance against Ireland was the other way around at the Danie Craven, a sluggish start leaving them fortunate to only be 0-12 down before their scrum ignited momentum and they became immense value for a 16-15 lead that should really have been 22-15 as Luka Tsirekidze missed two very kickable penalties amid the end-game tension.

Assistant coach Giorgi Nadareishvili expressed frustration afterwards over some of the decisions – for instance, the game-winning try had Ireland going in at the corner while a medical cart was on the pitch on the 22 dealing with an injured Georgian player.

The cruel reality, though, was that Georgia, as proud as their display was, ultimately weren’t good enough and the question does need to be asked where do they get the games outside of the Championship to make this necessary close-out-games improvement.

“We need more games, opportunities against the Six Nations teams and other teams, that would be really, really helpful to Georgian rugby for the future,” said Nadareishvili to RugbyPass. That would be ideal.

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New Zealand ticker
Okay, it required a last-minute penalty from an infringement at the maul for New Zealand to pip defending champions France 27-26, but the ticker they collectively exhibited in the second half in Stellenbosch was compelling evidence to suggest that Jono Gibbes has got the Baby Blacks firing like the days of old.

While there was no Championship in 2020, 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic, it still reads oddly that the last appearance by New Zealand in an age-grade semi-final was in 2018 and the last time they won the tournament was the year before.

They had slipped off the required standards in recent times but the manner of their four-try second-half comeback – after being held scoreless in the first half to trail by 11 points at the interval – was exquisite and quite the contrast to how they fell away against the French in a round two pool meeting a year ago in Paarl.

That surrender in the mud highlighted a soft underbelly up front but the pack of forwards now working under Gibbes are collectively more resilient and the way they climbed back into the contest in this year’s second half against the French was riveting.

They were great value for their 24-21 lead on 68 minutes but special praise is reserved for how they overcame adversity in the closing period to see out the win. France’s worldie of a try, finished by Mathis Ferte on 74 minutes, would have flattened many a team.

So too the frustration of the yellow card shown to Joshua Smith in the 78th-minute, TMO-spotted foul play resulting in the overturning of the original decision awarding New Zealand a penalty in front of the posts outside the 22.

Somehow they maintained the composure to earn Rico Simpson another chance and he showed cojones, landing his kick despite missing two previous efforts in quick succession from the same area of the field when trying to convert New Zealand tries No3 and No4.

No surprise then that Simpson was pleased with himself in the aftermath, telling RugbyPass in the dressing room corridor: “We got the penalty. I missed two from there before but I said to captain, ‘I’ll just take the shot, have a go’ and yeah, the wind was curling it back towards the post and yeah, a bit of doubt at the end there but after the review, pretty happy,”

Happy too was coach Gibbes. “It was an important game. The format of the pools is a bit complicated to get out as the best runner-up looking at the other pools, so it was a bit of a do-or-die for us. We felt like that, so there was some really good reward for effort.” Damn right there was.

Let’s cry for Argentina
Argentina deserve kudos for the way they improved from match day one and for how their noisy supporters lit up a terrible winter’s evening in Stellenbosch. The South Americans took an early 14-point lead courtesy of two tries against England last Saturday only to wind up soundly beaten 21-40.

Against South Africa, there was no way they were relinquishing an early 12-point, two-try advantage and they were tremendous value for the four-try bonus point secured just eight minutes into the second half and also their overall 31-12 victory.

Their post-match celebrations were touching and the jubilant atmosphere as they came down the tunnel to their dressing room was memorable.

“We worked a lot during the week, we trained a lot on our maul going forward, being very frontal. This is what we do. We improved our maul for this game,” enthused skipper Efrain Elias to RugbyPass, proving as efficient with his English as he was in driving his team forward out on the pitch.

This was the type of statement win they had been waiting for. “Big emotions. Super, super match for us,” continued assistant coach Carlos Mohapp. “We worked hard all week, worked hard all year. Better than than last year, better than the (TRC) Championship and finally we found a win against a big team.”

The unfortunate thing for Argentina is that this big win and next Tuesday’s anticipated five match points success versus Fiji for a total of 10 will likely still leave them short of semi-final qualification.

The head-to-head ruling means they can’t top Pool C as England, who play South Africa in their final match, are already on 10 points while their end-of-pool points tally will be eclipsed if there is a winner in Wales versus France in Pool A.

The Welsh are on seven and the French on six heading into their final outing in a group where New Zealand are set to top the table with 15 points as they finish with minnows Spain.

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English efficiency… and a world final prediction
Last year’s semi-finalists England are a far more menacing proposition at this year’s Championship as they followed last Saturday’s convincing comeback win over Argentina by making 12 XV changes and swatting aside Fiji, securing the four-try bonus point as early as the 26th minute in Athlone.

Admittedly they eased off the accelerator after that, a slowing down not assisted by Harvey Cuckson getting a 53-minute yellow card, but they pushed on to win 48-11, a margin that would have been five points more had an 81st-minute yellow for Kane James not been followed by a consolation Fiji try.

As evident in Embedded 2024, the weekly behind-the-scenes RugbyPass TV documentary series on Mark Mapletoft’s squad, they are a well-glued bunch whose carry-over players from 2023 have learned greatly.

Two games in, the jostling for play-off rankings suggests an England versus New Zealand final is on the cards, a fitting pairing given how these teams were respective age-grade Six Nations and Rugby Championship champions coming into this World Rugby U20 Championship.

The one thing about rugby at U20s level, though, is that predictions can be a mug’s game and whoever joins them in the semi-finals won’t fear the challenge they will face.

In other words, July 14 will definitely be a tasty evening of last-four action. First things first, however. Next Tuesday’s appetising match day three where France-Wales, Ireland-Australia and South Africa-England are the three standout fixtures not to miss.

  • Click here to sign up to RugbyPass TV for free live coverage of matches from the 2024 World Rugby U20 Championship in countries that don’t have an exclusive local host broadcaster deal

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Jon 7 days ago

Both the French and New Zealands players well down on last years standards. Though it could be the mental side again as the reason for the French.

NZ has picked up some continuity from last years team, with having the extra prep no doubt, and yet may find some strike power outwide for the Finals, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to run other teams around the park with much direction. Still like the way they are playing, including at 10, for how they might fill out in future.

Great to see such competitiveness throughout at youth level as well. Hopefully in future they might be able to expand on the competition a bit more. Obviously haven’t bigger crowds will help with funding but also hope RP is getting good views for the games, they are much deserved.

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Tom 7 minutes ago
All Blacks snatch another tight victory from England at Eden Park

First up to any of the ABs fans who accused us of “bluster” pre-series for saying it would be a competitive - I'm glad it turned out to be an excellent series to which the ABs were deserving winners and I hope next time a side tours you'll be a little more humble. I loved the heart shown by the English boys and how they managed to contain the AB attack for large parts of the series. Was very disappointed by the lack of cohesion and ambition ball in hand, we looked after the ball poorly and hardly went 2 phases without kicking it away. We're not giving ourselves enough opportunity to put phases together and build pressure. The ambition shown in the 6N against Ireland and France seems to have gone and our players look very hesitant with ball in hand, our line speed is faster without the ball than with it. Loving seeing Maro back to his best and Fin Baxter really impressed, Alex Mitchell looks to be one of the most complete 9s in world rugby, great around the base and impeccable kicking. Congrats to the ABs, far more dangerous and skillful than England. We contained you for large swathes but to shut down that amount of pace and skill for 80 mins is nigh on impossible. Managed to find a way to win and instinctively grabbed the rare opportunities which came your way. Finding ways to win in two tight test matches will I'm sure be a great experience for your younger players. Beauden needs to be in the starting 15, what a worldie.

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