World Rugby’s Under-20 Championship semi-finals turned out to be a bit of damp squib due to inclement weather in Rosario, but they have laid the foundations for what promises to be a thoroughly compelling final on Saturday.
Australia were the first to book their places in the competition’s showpiece event thanks to a 34-13 victory over hosts Argentina. They once again rode their luck with a red card, albeit this time they had to cope for just the 38 minutes rather than the 78 that they were down to 14 men for against England.
Joining the Junior Wallabies in the final are France, the reigning champions who saw off a strong South African side 20-7 in their semi-final later.
The Junior Springboks will feel like they didn’t fire enough shots, especially after having looked impressive in their three straight wins in the group stage. However, there is no denying that France were the much better team on the day.
It’s been an interesting year in the under-20s grade. No one team has stood out as clear front-runners, and a number of teams are all capable of beating one another on the right day. That said, if one team has managed to distance themselves from the pack, it has arguably been Australia.
Revised times for the final match day at the #WorldRugbyU20s Championship on Saturday, 22 June.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 20, 2019
The Junior Wallabies put in a clean sweep at the Oceania Under-20 Championship, beating Japan, Fiji and New Zealand. That secured them their first title in that tournament’s five-year history, with New Zealand having won the competition in every other year of its existence.
Australia then backed that up this month with comfortable and composed victories in Argentina over Italy and Ireland in the group stage. The one derailing of their train came at the hands of England in the final group match, although that was heavily influenced by the second-minute red card picked up by Patrick Tafa.
Prior to that pool finale, England had been having a below-par tournament. With a man advantage, they played their best rugby of the competition and managed to put 56 points on the young Australians. The Junior Wallabies did respond with 33 points of their own and showed plenty of heart despite being outmatched on the day.
With just one match day to go at the #WorldRugbyU20s Championship, Dallen Stanford and Sean Holley give their views on the most standout players int he competition to date. Some box office players here.
What player tops your list? pic.twitter.com/BUhqEnpL7n
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 19, 2019
The semi-final win over Argentina righted the ship for Australia, with Jason Gilmore’s side showing much better control and execution in the Rosario deluge despite once again being plagued by indiscipline reducing them to 14 players.
It’s not a criticism that can solely be levelled against Australia. A number of teams have struggled to deal with the new decision-making framework that surrounds high tackles at the tournament, but it is certainly something they will need to clean up if they are to clinch their first-ever World Rugby Under-20 Championship title.
Australia’s only other final appearance came in 2010, coincidentally the last time the tournament was hosted by Argentina. They were comfortably beaten by New Zealand on that occasion and it was followed by a tough time for Australia.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 17, 2019
Their best performance since then until 2019 was a third-place finish in 2011, with the Junior Wallabies failing to make the semi-finals for seven years until this month’s breakthrough.
France, meanwhile, have been almost the opposite of Australia over those years. Having failed to make much impact in the tournament’s formative seasons, they have since become an age-grade powerhouse.
Not only did France win the competition last year on home soil, but they have also begun pumping out major contributors to the Top 14 and a number of these young talents have already put their hands up for senior international selection.
— Qantas Wallabies (@qantaswallabies) June 17, 2019
There is plenty of consistency in the French side from the group that won the title last year, with Jordan Joseph, Louis Carbonel, Julien Delbouis, Jean-Baptiste Gros and Killian Geraci spearheading the squad’s bid for back-to-back titles this year.
Tighthead prop Demba Bamba, who has since graduated to the French senior side, has been missed at scrum time as the French set-piece isn’t as destructive as it was last year.
Romain Ntamack’s playmaking has also not been replaced and there is a larger burden on Carbonel to pull the strings in the back line. Despite the team not performing as dominantly this season, they are still a very dangerous group, one that is more than capable of lifting the trophy.
Australia find themselves in a similar situation. A number of second-year players are leading the way and face their last shot at glory at this level.
Captain Fraser McReight has been in sensationally good form throughout the competition and has arguably been the stand-out player in Argentina over the first four matchdays.
Alongside back row colleagues Will Harris and Harry Wilson, the Australian loose forward trio has shone. But they will certainly have their work cut out keeping Joseph quiet in the final. The success he and Bamba had in last year’s final against England was crucial to France lifting their first ever title at this level.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 19, 2019
Front rowers’ Angus Bell and Lachlan Lonergan have stood out with their work in the loose and will again need to be effective as the French pack comfortably exerted their physicality on South Africa in the semi-final, something which was no mean feat given the quality in the Junior Springboks side.
One area where Australia may fancy themselves enjoying an advantage is in the midfield where Noah Lolesio and Semisi Tupou have been the most cohesive centre pairing we have seen at the tournament so far.
Coupled with Isaac Lucas’ proclivity for popping up in the back line and helping link the midfield with the wings, Australia have looked just as good in space as their forwards have looked in the tight.
The biggest blow to the Junior Wallabies’ hopes comes in the form of missing fly-half Will Harrison, who had played with aplomb against Italy and Ireland before suffering a concussion against England. He missed the semi-final win over Argentina and, based on the protocols around return to play, will also miss the decider against France.
Ben Donaldson coped well at fly-half against Argentina, but in Carbonel he will find himself up against a very composed operator, someone whose senior experience clearly shines through in his play at this level.
France’s threats in the midfield might not be quite as potent as Australia’s, but if the French pack can deliver front-foot ball, Carbonel is more than capable of running a back line that can cause the Junior Wallabies plenty of problems.
U20s Highlights: Check out all the action from this #WorldRugbyU20s semi-final as last year's champions France secured their place in the Championship final after beating South Africa 20-7 pic.twitter.com/4J4fjLw2mm
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 18, 2019
Whichever way the result goes on Saturday, the future looks bright for both of these teams, with a number of the individuals involved potentially going on to win senior caps as soon as next year when international Test teams begin to build for the 2023 Rugby World Cup cycle.
One interesting attendee at Australia’s semi-final win over Argentina? Eddie Jones.
Whether the Australian was just enjoying his native nation prospering at this level, taking in Argentina as a guest of Daniel Hourcade, or eyeing the future strength of the Wallabies, the England head coach will certainly have been impressed by what he saw in Rosario.
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