Argentina, Australia, defending champions France, New Zealand and hosts South Africa all enjoyed victories on the opening day of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 in Paarl and Stellenbosch, while England and Ireland played out only the second draw in the tournament’s history.
After a three-year wait, the World Rugby U20 Championship finally made a return to the rugby calendar on Saturday with 405 points scored across six enthralling matches on the Western Cape of South Africa.
Argentina and Italy kicked off proceedings at Paarl Gymnasium under a light blue sky with Los Pumitas making the most of an early red card to Italy’s Destiny Aminu to win 43-15.
The second match of the day at the venue couldn’t have been any closer as England and Ireland were tied at 34-34 in what is only the second drawn pool match in U20 Championship history.
Only a point would separate the sides in the third and final match of the day in Paarl, a strong second-half performance seeing New Zealand recover from 19-5 down at half-time against Wales and survive a late fightback to win 27-26 and claim their 50th victory in U20 Championship history.
France got the action underway at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, the two-time defending champions proving too strong for a resilient Japan with an emphatic 75-12 victory.
Australia, the side beaten in the 2019 final by France, had a much trickier encounter against Fiji in a match which kept fans on the edge of their seats with the Junior Wallabies coming from behind late on to triumph 46-37.
That left it to hosts South Africa, on the 28th anniversary of the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup 1995 success on home soil, to bring the curtain down on an entertaining day of rugby with a hard-fought 33-23 defeat of Georgia in Pool C.
The tournament continues on Thursday, 29 June with the second round of pool matches. The Pool B encounter between Australia and Ireland will get things underway in Paarl at 11:00 local time (GMT+2) before France and New Zealand – with eight U20 Championship titles between them – come face to face in Pool A at 13:30 and South Africa tackle Italy in Pool C at 16:00.
Over at Danie Craven Stadium, Wales will meet Japan in their Pool A encounter at 14:00 before Argentina tackle Georgia at 16:30 and England meet Fiji at 19:00.
POOL A: FRANCE 75-12 JAPAN
France ran in 11 tries to open their World Rugby U20 Championship account with a comfortable bonus-point victory over a determined Japan.
Les Bleuets, who lifted the trophy in the last two tournaments in 2018 and 2019, made the most of their size and power advantage to race away in the first 40 minutes, despite ending the half down to 13 players, with centre Nicolas Depoortere and replacement back-row Esteban Capilla both yellow-carded by referee Hollie Davidson, who became the first female referee of a World Rugby U20 Championship match.
Depoortere had opened the scoring in the third minute, finishing a sweeping, powerful move under the posts for the first of his two tries. Fly-half Hugo Reus got the second four minutes later, after the French pack had marched forward at a scrum. France had their third in the 10th minute, via Mastercard Player of the Match Marko Gazzotti, and the bonus-point score inside the first quarter, Noa Zinzen touching down after Baptiste Jauneau’s snipe down the blindside from another dominant scrum.
The scoreline only told part of the story. Japan, playing with bravery and determination, had their chances to score, getting into France’s danger zone on more than one occasion. Their two tries – one in each half – came from five-metre lineouts. Kosho Muto darted under the posts after his pack had pounded away at the French defence for the first on the half-hour, and Takashi Omoto had the ball when Japan mauled their way over just after the hour.
By that time, however, France had scored eight converted tries. Four minutes after he had replaced Zinzen, Capilla was on Depoortere’s shoulder as the centre charged parallel to the touchline, scattering defenders to take the score to 35-7, moments after Muto had broken Japan’s duck.
Gazzotti went over for his second try – France’s sixth – three minutes later, as Les Bleuets ran the powerful and direct playbook step-by-speedy step.
France were in such control, despite being two players down, that coach Sebastien Calvet made several changes at half-time, rotating his squad in anticipation of their second match against New Zealand on Thursday. And still the tries came. Mathis Ferte touched down two minutes into the second half, even with two players still counting down their sin-bins, after more strong, fast, phaseless rugby from his team-mates.
Depoortere added his second seven minutes later, replacement scrum-half Léo Carbonneau finished another fast-flowing move with nine minutes remaining with time still for Brent Liufau to profit from hooker Barnabé Massa’s power and Massy back-row Andy Timo showed winger’s pace to race in from 70 metres for the last try of the match.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 27-26 WALES
New Zealand demonstrated their resilience by staging a stirring second-half fightback then holding off a late Welsh onslaught to hold on for a narrow bonus point win at Paarl Gymnasium.
Wales were 19-5 up at the break but New Zealand scored 22 unanswered points in the third quarter with the wind at their backs with fly-half Taha Kemara making expert use of the conditions.
Wales set up a thrilling finale when replacement hooker Sam Scarfe was driven over in the last minute, seconds after he had a try disallowed for losing control of the ball as he crossed the line.
But Wales failed to secure the re-start kick which allowed New Zealand to boot the ball into touch to secure the win, their 50th in the competition.
Having faced a fearsome Haka before kick-off, Wales then went behind to an early try from New Zealand right-wing Caleb Tangitau. But Wales used their forward power to dominate the rest of the opening half with hooker Liam Lloyd being driven over for their opening try followed by fly-half Dan Edwards, who picked a gap in New Zealand’s defence.
Wales thought they had scored a third try when number eight Morgan Morse appeared to have smuggled his way over but English referee Anthony Woodthorpe spotted a double movement. Morse was not to be denied though when he arrived in support of a break from full-back Cameron Winnett and drove over with Edwards converting.
But the complexion of the match changed completely within the first 15 minutes of the second half as New Zealand used the wind to their advantage.
Left-wing Macca Springer scored a try that was a mirror-image of New Zealand’s first and Wales got a taste of their own medicine when they were unable to prevent number eight Peter Lakai being driven over.
Kemara added the conversion before full-back Harry Godfrey temporarily took over the kicking duties and landed a straightforward penalty that regained the lead.
The bonus point try soon followed when Kemara’s pinpoint kick was tapped back by Springer into the hands of blindside flanker Che Clark, the Mastercard Player of the Match.
Edwards was off-target with a late penalty attempt but he made amends by adding a touchline conversion to Scarfe’s try which secured two bonus points for Wales.
POOL B: ENGLAND 34-34 IRELAND
England and Ireland played out only the second draw in the history of the pool stages of the U20 Championship.
A hugely physical contest between two behemoth packs featured some big collisions and came with three cards, including a yellow to both sides and a late red to Ireland centre, Hugh Cooney.
The result of the game was in doubt throughout with some missed kicks at goal from Ireland fly-half Sam Prendergast proving important to the final outcome.
Prendergast was only able to convert two of Ireland’s six tries but his opposite number, Connor Slevin, was on target with all five of his attempts as a late brace from replacement back Jacob Cusick saw England stage a late rally. In the end, it was Ireland who were left hanging on.
Slevin opened the scoring with a fourth-minute penalty but Ireland bossed most of the first half, scoring tries through Prendergast and prop George Hadden before a moment of individual brilliance from Hadden’s fellow loose-head, Asher Opoku-Fordjour, gave England some respite. Opoku-Fordjour, all muscle, bounced off two defenders in a bullocking 20-metre run to the line and Slevin added the extras to tie the scores at 10-10.
A couple of defensive interventions from Prendergast denied England the lead and at the other end, Ireland also had several chances before they finally converted possession into points on the stroke of half-time, from a tap penalty, through number eight James McNabney.
A third miss from Prendergast meant England were still only five points behind Ireland at the break despite being out-scored three tries to one and spending more time in defence than in attack.
The boot was on the other foot though at the start of the second half as England’s dominant scrum started to turn the screw. Ireland found it impossible to exit their 22 and after eight minutes camped inside their own territory, they conceded their second try shortly after losing flanker Diarmuid Mangan to the sin-bin for illegally slowing play down at the ruck.
Rekeiti Ma’asi-White was stopped inches short before another charge, this time from the ever-industrious Chandler Cunningham-South, brought them a penalty try after Ireland were guilty of another indiscretion in the red zone.
England then capitalised on the extra space caused by the loss of Mangan to create a good try for Jacob Cusick in the corner. But back came Ireland with tries to Ruadhan Quinn and Henry McErlean, the latter while Greg Fisilau was in the sin-bin. John Devine then combined with his centre partner Hugh Cooney and with Prendergast converting the try, Ireland had a double-figure lead with 15 minutes remaining.
England captain Ollie Chessum stayed cool under pressure though, and his sensible decision to kick for the posts was backed up by Slevin’s boot. When Cusick went over in the same corner and Slevin brilliantly slotted from the touchline, it was all-square and the score stayed at 34-34, despite Ireland being a man down, with both sides guilty of mistakes as they pressed for a winner.
POOL B: AUSTRALIA 46-37 FIJI
Two tries in three late second-half minutes from full-back Mason Gordon and winger Darby Lancaster as a determined Fiji tired handed Australia a hard-fought opening win in an enthralling, momentum-shifting match at Danie Craven Stadium.
And a last-minute penalty from Jack Bowen pulled the Junior Wallabies beyond the seven-point lead to deny Fiji what would have been a deserved second bonus point.
Until then, Fiji had given more than as good as they got, and were in the lead late into the second half, after Junior Wallabies’ loose-head Marley Pearce’s initial yellow card for a dangerous tackle was upgraded to red by the TMO Bunker.
Just four points had separated the two sides at the end of a high-pace, high-entertainment first half, in which Australia bagged a try-scoring bonus point.
Australian second-row Jhy Legg – a pre-match injury replacement for Daniel Maiava – got over the try line early on, only to be held-up by determined Fiji defence, before hooker Liam Bowron found himself at the back of a superb maul as it crossed the whitewash.
Fiji responded immediately. Bronson Lee leapt highest to take the restart and – a couple of phases later – Waqa Nalaga scored following Isaiah Ravula’s insouciant pass.
The Junior Wallabies tight-head Nick Bloomfield then popped up to finish off a sweeping, gasp-inducing, move after David Vaihu had straightened the line.
Ravula kept Fiji in the hunt with his second penalty, but sevens prodigy Darby Lancaster dotted down in the corner as Australia again targeted the wide channels.
Australia’s forward power was starting to tell. Pick-and-drives took them to the line before Vaihu crossed for a deserved try of his own to bag the try-scoring bonus for the Junior Wallabies. But, just as Australia looked like they were pulling away, Mesake Vocevoce galloped to the line. He was brought down, but Fiji recycled and captain Moti Murray went over.
Mastercard Player of the Match Vaihu again provided a vital link early in the second half, supplying the crucial final pass for Ronan Leahy to score in the corner to give Australia a 29-20 lead.
However, Fiji came back quickly. The ever-dangerous Murray charged to within five metres of the line, before Ratu Kavaia Tagivetaua crashed over after a series of Fijian pick-and-drives.
With a player advantage, Timoci Nakalevu crashed over to give Fiji a five-point lead, extended to eight after Ravula kicked a penalty. But the Fijians had started to tire, which proved crucial in the final reckoning, as Gordon and Lancaster made the difference.
POOL C: ARGENTINA 43-15 ITALY
Los Pumitas fly-half Juan Baronio produced a Mastercard Player of the Match performance as his team laboured to victory against 14-man Italy. Baronio scored one of his side’s six tries and added 11 points with the boot, including a monstrous drop goal from halfway.
The honour of scoring the first points of this year’s tournament, though, belonged to his opposite number, Giovanni Sante, who slotted a simple penalty in the third minute after Argentina loose-head Matías Medrano jumped out of the defensive line too quickly.
Italy then soaked up the pressure that came their way with a combination of solid defence and Argentina’s mistakes keeping their line intact. But the whole complexion of the game changed in the 15th minute when Italy prop Destiny Aminu was sent off for a dangerous tackle.
Even so, Italy U20 rookie Dewi Passarella raced home for a brilliant individual effort after the back-pedalling Azzurrini pack had just about managed to win their own ball from a scrum on halfway.
Argentina’s route back into the game came off the back of a second 50:22 from the cultured left boot of Baronio. Switching to the blindside, the fly-half managed to just about ground the ball despite being sandwiched by two defenders and then converted his own try to close the gap to one point.
A dangerous run from Matthias Leon Douglas threatened the Argentina line and Italy continued to look like the more comfortable team with ball in hand.
Inevitably, though, gaps started to appear in the Italian defence and Argentina scored twice in the final five minutes of the half through captain Eliseo Chiavassa and winger Mateo Soler. With Baronio converting both tries, Los Pumitas went into the break 21-8 up.
Disappointingly for Italy, they lost Passarella to an arm injury during a long period of defending where their tackle count for the match approached 100.
Once second-row Efraín Elías scored from close range and Baronio converted a few minutes into the second half, Italy looked to be facing a damage limitation exercise.
However, over-zealous breakdown play conspired against Argentina racking up the points and it wasn’t until the 63rd minute that Los Pumitas scored again through replacement hooker Valentino Minoyetti, from the back of a driving maul.
Italy continued to look lively when they did get an opportunity and David Odiase capped a strong-carrying display with a try on 68 minutes.
Baronio, though, was undeniably the star of the show and he underlined his huge potential with a sweetly struck drop goal from 50 metres out. Argentina then rounded off the scoring two minutes from time after Benjamín Elizalde finished off a good back-three move.
SOUTH AFRICA 33-23 GEORGIA
South Africa may have enjoyed home comforts, playing in familiar surroundings at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, but they were made to work for victory in their opening match.
Georgia, fresh from beating England in a warm-up match, gave the Junior Springboks a stern test with two flashes of individual brilliance in the first half ultimately proving decisive in an abrasive contest.
South Africa centre and vice-captain Katlego Letebele turned defence into attack when Georgia turned over possession near halfway and sliced through the Junior Lelos defence with a sublime chip-and-collect.
Then right wing Juremzo Julius supplied an acrobatic finish to a superbly-worked attack after full-back Hakeem Kunene had drawn the defence and delivered a perfectly-timed pass.
But it was hard work for the most part for South Africa against a big Georgia pack who caused them problems in the scrums and they were unable to secure a try bonus point which could prove costly in the race for a place in the semi-finals.
South Africa also required some accurate place-kicking from fly-half and Mastercard Player of the Match Jean Smith who had a 100 per cent record off the tee with three conversions and four penalties.
Georgia were tenacious throughout and gave South Africa plenty to think about with captain and blindside flanker Lasha Tsikhistavi crossing for a close-range try after 14 minutes, which fly-half Petre Khutsishvili improved.
Khutsishvili struck with a penalty early in the second half and Georgia’s confidence grew as they successfully disrupted South Africa’s scrum.
A series of penalties allowed Georgia to build the pressure which told when centre Tornike Kakhoidze opened up the home defence to set up winger Luka Tsirekidze.
Khutsishvili was off target with the conversion but he made no mistake with a penalty five minutes later when South Africa openside flanker Ghudian van Reenen was yellow carded for cumulative team offences.
That reduced South Africa’s lead to two points but Georgia then conceded two penalties at the other end which Smith kicked and turned over possession close to their line that allowed centre Ethan Hooker to pick up and score.
Georgia had the last word when replacement hooker Nika Babunashvili went over from a lineout but it was too late to deny South Africa.