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The 'silver lining' Wales have taken from latest U20s loss to France

By Liam Heagney
Two Wales players jostle for possession versus France on Tuesday (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

We have been here before with Wales, down the same dressing room tunnel in Athlone interviewing their key personnel following a World Rugby U20 Championship pool-ending loss to France. A year ago, 19-43 was the margin of defeat which left them contesting the fifth to eighth placings on match day four. That 24-point gap had closed on Tuesday afternoon, the Welsh losing by 18 in an 11-29 loss.

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They had started brightly and were proving to be sticky opposition for the French, as they were by down just a point – 6-7 – following a second Harri Ford penalty kick. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated from there. Tries on 33 and 37 minutes for France were followed by their four-try bonus four minutes into the second half within seconds of the Welsh copping a yellow card.

That damage was terminal and instead of taking what essentially was a quarter-final, a winner-takes-all match day three pool match, to the wire, France were able to run their bench in the knowledge that they were qualifying for the semi-finals as the sole best runner-up from all three pools, leaving Wales to pick up the pieces with a rankings game against Australia.

“Up to 25, 30 minutes we were pleased,” enthused Richard Whiffin, their first-season head coach. “The game plan was working, we were in the right areas but they [France] are a champion team for a reason. They scored a couple of quick tries back-end of that first half and then we had to chase a little bit too much.

“We were pleased with our effort but it was a tough game with the conditions the way they were. We were just disappointed with a couple of soft moments in that first half that blew the score out a little bit.

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“We took the wind in the first half and wanted to try and build some territory and scoreboard pressure but the French got a couple of decent offloads away and they breached our line a couple of times in that first half. They are a good team, have got some outstanding half-backs that put them in the right area.

“They will be a match for anyone in that top bracket but also we showed there is opportunities there for other teams,” he hinted, clutching the silver lining that elimination from the title race isn’t the end of the road for the Welsh at the 2024 Championship.

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“That’s how we pitched it all week, as a quarter-final. I suppose the silver lining is we’re not going home, we have got another two games and the target for us now is to finish top of that second group of four and that will be our goal.

“I thought the forward pack worked incredibly hard and the bench impact, Harry Thomas did well when he came on. Macs Page played wing and 13, his kick chase, his ability around the field was really good but forward pack dug in really hard.”

Their leader was skipper Ryan Woodman, a unit with a promising future in the game having already made the first-team breakthrough at Dragons. “We just let in a few soft tries in the first half which they ran away with in the end and they were good in defence, we only scored one try. Really tough conditions but we both had those conditions to play, they just played better.

“It was towards the end of the first half (we lost it). They just cut us through the middle and then it was tough to claw it back in the second half with the wind blowing towards us. We were quite physical. We scored a good maul try but we will go away and look at why they scored four tries, which they shouldn’t have really, and get ready for the next game.”

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Woodman missed the entire 2024 U20 Six Nations, so he doesn’t know how to compare this Championship title-chasing France with the team that came to Cardiff and enjoyed an easy win in March. “I didn’t play in the Six Nations, I don’t know what it was like. I was injured, but last year they were also a good side and they won the competition.

“They’re a good side again this year again, they have loads of players feeding into the senior French squad. I thought we put up a tough fight for the majority of the game. There were one or two errors where they slipped through and scored tries. That gave them the game really.”

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