Key battles ahead of the World Rugby U20 Championship final
For just the third time in the competition’s 11-year history, there will be an all-northern hemisphere final in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
England booked their place in the competition’s showpiece finale for the sixth season running – their ninth final overall – after beating South Africa in Narbonne, whilst France will make their debut at this stage following a win over New Zealand in Perpignan, with fourth-place finishes in 2011, 2015 and 2017 their previous best.
The two sides contested the U20 Six Nations earlier this season, too, with France lifting the trophy on points difference, although England did beat France during the tournament, 22-6, a match that was played out at Stade de la Mediterranee in Béziers, the same stadium that will play host to the final on Sunday.
It was a largely even game, with England having a slight upper-hand, but France blew any chances of a comeback when Hassane Kolingar and Pierre-Henri Azagoh were both sent off for a dangerous tackle on Fraser Dingwall.
Both teams have come a long way since that game, with changing casts in personnel, and it is unlikely that France will gift England a similar comfortable end to the game this Sunday, that they did back in March.
We break down the three key areas where the game will be won and lost and who has the advantage heading into the final 80 minutes of the tournament.
Jordan Joseph vs England’s back-row
Joseph has been one of, if not the star of the tournament so far and finding a way to keep him under wraps will be one of England’s key priorities on Sunday.
The fast-rising French N8 enjoyed starring roles in his side’s wins over South Africa and New Zealand and brought decisive impact from the bench in the tournament opener against Ireland. As of yet, no team has been able to stop him from imposing his will on the game.
The duty of stopping him won’t just fall on the back-row but with his powerful carries off the base of the scrum, the link work he does between the pack and the back line and the speed he possesses to break away from the tighter confines on the pitch, it’s going to be the mobility of the back-row that he finds himself up against more often than not.
Well, that or some beleaguered half-backs.
In Ben Curry, Ted Hill and Josh Basham, England have three very adept operators – all of whom are enjoying good tournaments – but they will have their work cut out trying to stop Joseph. With the physicality Curry brings having spent his first two seasons out of school playing senior rugby, this responsibility is going to fall particularly hard on openside, who also has his own mouth-watering match-up with Cameron Woki to worry about.
It’s not too dissimilar to the situation England found themselves in back in 2015, when they came face-to-face with a rampaging Akira Ioane in the final. They were successful in keeping him quieter than anyone else in the tournament had managed, but they still ended up losing the game to New Zealand, so they will need to be aware of the threats outside of Joseph, too.
Battle of the playmakers
This looks like it is going to be a match-up of four excellent ball-players, with France’s Louis Carbonel and Romain Ntamack going head-to-head with the 10-12 axis of Marcus Smith and Tom Hardwick for England.
Whichever side can get their playmakers moving forward on to the ball should be able to profit in the back line, though you expect it is something which is especially important to England’s chances of success.
Having Smith and Hardwick at 10 and 12 respectively allows England to move the ball wide quickly, bringing into the game the dynamic threats they have in the back-three. It also lets England split their back line, have first receivers at different depths and an array of kicking options, should the game prove tight and territorial.
Carbonel and Ntamack give France similar options, but their threats out wide don’t quite stack up with the danger that England’s outside backs pose.
In Smith and Ntamack you have two of the top young fly-half talents in world rugby, but with the added experience that Smith has at senior level and the speed of thought and clinical execution he brings to the field, this is an area you would expect England to have a slight advantage.
After Demba Bamba wrecked the New Zealand scrum on Tuesday, you could be forgiven for thinking the English front-row would be having sleepless nights over facing him, except they did back in March and came out of it relatively unscathed.
Bamba’s opposite number that day was Toby Trinder, who has unfortunately had to retire from the tournament with injury, but France have had their own substantial loss in the form of loosehead Kolingar. Both teams have solid scrums and good replacements available, so it should be a compelling contest throughout, although a slight advantage could be given to France.
Where France may have a more significant advantage is at the lineout, a problem area for England for the past two seasons.
Hooker Henry Walker and his lineout targets had looked in efficient shape against Italy and Scotland in the pool stage, but against South Africa the group lost its way a little. Across the entire season, it’s an area Guillaume Marchand and his jumpers have been more consistent in.
Another thing France have working in their favour is the defensive lineout ability of Woki, who’s arguably a more potent threat to steal or muddy opposition ball than any of England’s options.
It’s an incredibly tough game to call.
To borrow from the currently ongoing football World Cup, England are the Germany of U20s rugby. They are powerful, skilful, mentally strong and despite the constantly changing cast, consistently find ways to win and make it to finals.
That said, France are clearly the Brazil of the tournament. It would have been kind to say they looked average against both Georgia and Ireland, yet they have backed that up with extremely impressive wins over South Africa and New Zealand and seem to be peaking at just the right time, even if there is a more mercurial nature to them.
England have the advantage in the playmakers and the back line, yet France have the upper-hand at the set-piece. It could well be the respective back-rows that decide this game, with Curry’s battle against Joseph and Woki an appetising one, although the trio of Basham, Hill and Antonin Berruyer should not be overlooked, either.
England to sneak it, just.
The loss of Kolingar will hurt France and they are coming up against the best scrum and most physical team they have yet to see at the competition. France will still have the advantage in those two areas, but the disparity should be small enough to negate some of France’s recent dominance in the tight and allow England to still utilise their own advantages.
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