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Four World Rugby U20 Championship match day three talking points

By Liam Heagney
Ireland celebrate a try in the 2023 World Rugby U20 Championship pool win over Australia (Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Tuesday at the World Rugby U20 Championship is officially listed as the final round of the pool stage, but in a couple of instances the fixtures are essentially quarter-final games where it is winner-takes-all.

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Wales versus defending champions France in Pool A is essentially a play-off to decide who clinches the single best runner-up spot available to progress to the semi-finals, while Ireland against Australia at the same Athlone venue on the Cape Flats is a knockout clash to decide who tops Pool B. They are the day’s two standout matches but that doesn’t mean there isn’t interest in the other games.

For instance, while hosts South Africa require a miracle-type win to make the last four, they still have an opportunity to dent the momentum of high-flying England who are hotly tipped to contest the Championship final versus New Zealand, who finish their pool programme with a ‘gimme’ versus minnows Spain.

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

Elsewhere, the focus is on how big a score Argentina, the impressive day two winners over the Junior Boks, can put on Fiji, while the battle between Georgia and Italy is set to be an engrossing all-European arm wrestle.

As was the situation with the previous two rounds, they will be two games kicking off simultaneously at 2pm, 4:30pm and 7pm local time so rugby fans will be best served having two gadgets on the go at the same time so no development is missed.

RugbyPass TV are streaming all of the games live and for free in all countries that don’t have an exclusive local broadcaster deal – click here to sign up/log in.

RugbyPass published its day three match-by-match guide on Monday, listing all 12 of the teams selected, the number of changes from round two, and predicting the outcome of the matches – click here to check out the named teams. And now, here are the RugbyPass talking points before the latest round of U20s action gets underway:

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Aussie-Irish rivalry, part two
The Junior Wallabies left the 2023 tournament frustrated with their fifth-place finish. What held them back was a third-place pool finish behind Ireland and England that could have turned out very differently. Stuck in the craw was their 10-30 defeat to the Irish in Paarl.

Ireland adapted far better to the difficult conditions that day and were good value for their 20-point winning margin, but what grated with Aussie coach Nathan Grey was that an incident cited post-game, which resulted in a suspension, would have been a red card had it been spotted in real-time at a juncture in the game where the score was close nearing the interval.

That would have left Ireland playing more than a half of the match a player short, a situation that would have made it more difficult for them to go on and secure the comfortable margin of victory they wound up with.

You wonder if this Aussie ‘injustice’ has now fed into their pep talk for this year’s renewal as tighthead Nick Bloomfield and their 2024 skipper, Toby Macpherson, came off the bench 13 months ago.

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What more certainly has coloured their build-up was last Thursday’s shock loss to Italy in the Athlone rain. The Aussie XV chosen to play Ireland definitely owe their coach a performance as he has chosen 13 of the same starting 15 to run on again even though he could understandably have changed up his team even more given the disappointing nature of their loss.

In contrast to that Aussie loss, Ireland were blessed to clinch an undeserved win over Georgia with a 24-phase play that grabbed them an 83rd-minute converted try to turn a 15-16 deficit into a 22-26 win. They surely won’t perform as lethargically as they did in Stellenbosch but might the unavailability of injured skipper Evan O’Connell be a result-defining absence?

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French still talking titles
Last Thursday in Stellenbosch witnessed a rare U20 Championship loss for French. They have dominated the World Rugby tournament in the last while, winning the three most recent titles in succession and collecting 14 wins in 15 matches in the process.

The only loss in their three-peat came in 2019 when they were well-beaten 26-47 in a round three pool match by Argentina in Rosario. That defeat was not a title destroyer as they still qualified for the semi-finals as the best runner-up, beat South Africa in the semi-finals and then Australia in the final.

Now, despite losing 26-27 to New Zealand with the last kick of the game, they are still well placed to make the semi-finals once more as the best runner-up. Victory over Wales, whom they defeated 43-19 in a 2023 Championship pool match in Athlone and 45-12 in a Six Nations game in Cardiff nearly 18 weeks ago, stand in their way of qualification.

What was interesting in the immediate aftermath of their loss to the Baby Blacks five days ago was how quickly they were on message that reaching the semi-finals was still mission possible and that the last-gasp loss to New Zealand was just a bump in the road.

Within minutes of the final whistle, loosehead Lino Julien told RugbyPass: “It’s not a habit for us to lose. It’s sad but we have to fix our thoughts. Coach said we have to keep our heads up and believe that we can make it. He was warm speaking so he didn’t say a lot, just keep our heads up and believe in it, we can still do it and be champion of the world.”

How very true. Even though the odds after two rounds of pool matches are on New Zealand meeting England in the July 19 final at DHL Stadium, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the French do the business against Wales, progress as the best runner-up and menacingly clinch a semi-final against New Zealand if Jono Gibbes’ side clinch the No1 seeding with a runaway win over minnows Spain.

Junior Boks backed into corner
Semi-final qualification looks beyond the Junior Boks unless they blitz England by five match points to nil, something their form doesn’t suggest is possible. There was a lack of desire and intelligence in how they came up miles short versus Argentina in their 12-31 defeat last time out, a result that sharply contrasted with the crafty 41-20 success enjoyed by the English against the South Americans.

Whereas Mark Mapletoft’s team didn’t flinch when trailing to two early Argentina tries, Bafana Nhleko’s charges looked clueless in how to adapt to the same situation of falling two early tries behind.

As much as South Africans love their rugby, losing isn’t palatable and while the weather in Stellenbosch was dreadful on the night, it didn’t go unnoticed that the 70th-minute try for Argentina’s Juan Penoucos sparked a walkout by some fans fed up with what they were watching from their team.

It leaves Nhleko in a tricky situation. Yes, the U20s programme is all about providing a step on the developmental pathway for future Springboks players, a process he has been at pains to highlight in his recent comments, including to RugbyPass in a post-game round two interview.

However, while the Junior Boks have only won this Championship once in 13 previous attempts, they have been serial semi-final participants. The 2011 edition held in Italy was the only time when they failed to make the last four, but they kept faith in head coach Dawie Theron and were rewarded with the title 12 months later at the 2012 home Championship.

Will this loyal response be similar with Nhleko if South Africa don’t summon up a miracle against England and maintain their last four qualification record? It’s hard to say. This is his second home-based Championship in charge and their form last year, despite a bronze medal outcome, was also stuttery, the low point being a pool loss to Italy.

The coach really needs his class of 2024 to at least get a win against England, even if the numbers still don’t add up for semi-final progress.

Minnows vulnerable to a hiding
The U20s is a difficult grade to ensure an across-the-board competitiveness in all teams. Japan were blown away last year at the 12-team World Rugby Championship, losing all five matches in South Africa and getting relegated down to the Trophy where there is an even greater imbalance between its participants.

Just look at the 10-team 2024 edition being currently hosted by Scotland: the Japanese have so far enjoyed respective 105-20 and 81-7 wins over Hong Kong China and Samoa but those gigantic margins of victory have been dwarfed by the Scots winning 101-0 and 123-15 against the same pool opposition.

The hope in Cape Town is that New Zealand don’t put up a three-figure score against Spain, the 2023 Trophy champions in Kenya, who replaced Japan in the top-tier tournament.

They have so far suffered 12-49 and 10-31 defeats to France and Wales respectively but they have now rotated their XV to play the Baby Blacks in the hope they can be ultra-competitive in next Sunday’s ninth-to-12th place semi-final play-off against an opposition likely to also be coming off losses at the tournament.

It’s hard to imagine Spain having real depth in their squad and in making 12 changes to their starting team – only out-half Gonzalo Otamendi, left wing Roberto Ponce and midfieler Yago Fernandez Vilar have been retained – they have left themselves vulnerable to a heavy pool-closing defeat even though New Zealand have made nine change to their XV following their dramatic one-point win over France.

The Championship needs the minnows to be competitive, not surrender to a credibility-wounding result. Here’s hoping they can somehow limit the damage New Zealand are capable of inflicting.

  • 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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Wonton 3 hours ago
Why Scott Robertson may need to ease big names aside for All Blacks' flexibility

One game against Fiji is not enough to show that a player is ready to play the likes of South Africa. Spreading the ball wide too much increases the risk of turnovers and we turned the ball over 20 times against Fiji which is a lot more than what we did in the two England tests. We actually turned the ball over the same amount of times (20) against England in the 2019 semi final which we lost. Fiji didn’t make us pay for those turnovers but other teams will. In the 2nd test against England this year we had 100% success rate on attacking rucks. That’s the first time the AB’s have achieved this since the 2019 opening game of the RWC against South Africa. South Africa won last years RWC and Jesse Kriel did not pass once. The days of the Conrad Smith type centre might be over. Also Conrad Smith debuted in 2004 but he did not become an incumbent until Nonu did also in 2008. As for Rieko Ioane he and Jordie Barrett put in some very strong midfield hits in the 2nd test forcing turnovers several times. Rieko Ioane hasn’t played wing in years. If Proctor is moved to 13 then the best I think Ioane can hope for is an impact player off the bench. He does not have the aerial game of Caleb Clarke or the workrate of Tele’a for 11 and going to be selected over Jordan at 14. However its much too early to replace Rieko with Proctor. Rieko was excellent in the knock out rounds of the RWC. All Proctor has to show on his test CV is a good game against Fiji.

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Nick 5 hours ago
How 'gazelle' Nick Frost thawed the hearts of Wallaby fans at Suncorp

Its almost like you read my comment on the other site on sunday morning Nick - you flagged all the same examples! 😝 Frost was motm for mine. That eg in the 56th minute in particular impressed me, nothing but sheer effort and a dupont/smith-like tracking line behind the D. Surely an effort like that from frost marries perfectly with that quote from schmidt at the start of the year about effort and work rate being 70-80% and talent is just the icing on top… What it also showed though was the players not making that effort, in that example he goes past both valetini and ikitau, and in the eg that finished with valetini scoring hunter paisami barely breaks a canter to support the break. And then there was the chase from wright and lancaster for the 2nd georgian try! One blemish - at kickoff I saw frost miss or get bumped off a few tackles and I felt like I saw what has been holding his selection back. I think because he is so big and is trying to get low to tackle, he seems to dip his head and ends up losing his balance or ability to adjust and ends up missing or making a soft hit. I think in the first 2 minutes he misses or makes 2-3 soft tackles, but you could clearly see the work rate and desire! He (the pod) also missed a kick restart or two? Also very happy to see harry wilson back in the fold. What impressed me from him wasn’t all the usual stuff he is known for, but all the other bits that usually let him down. He looked surprisingly good in the air at lineout time, physical at the breakdown, and good in the maul peeling off 3 georgians for one of the maul tries. Id have frost, skelton, wright as my 4-6 with LSL and wilson on the bench. i’m once again unconvinced by tom wirght - he was very good game 1, but game 2-3 he was back to more rocks than diamonds. There is no real other player to usurp him really so he stays in the team for now but I think Joe should put kellaway wherever he serves the team best and wright can be moved around him. Did donno do enough to overtake noah? My gut says no. They clearly had a plan to attack more so he looked better in that regard because he just had more opportunity, but they looked better off tate (who had a v good game also) then they did off donno.

15 Go to comments
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