Race hots up for U20s glory
June 17, 2011
Francois Venter scored two tries in South Africa's victory over Ireland © Getty Images
The battle for the 2011 IRB Junior World Championship crown is set to intensify on Saturday with the final round of pool action.
Three-time defending champions New Zealand, Australia and South Africa lead the way at the top of each pool but England and France remain very much in the mix as the other two unbeaten sides left in the competition.
The Baby Blacks have a stranglehold on Pool A having crushed hosts Italy 64-7 in their opening clash before demolishing Wales 92-0 in their second outing - scoring 23 tries and conceding just one in the process. They tackle Argentina in Padova on Saturday and will be strong favourites to extend their amazing winning run in the competition to 18 games - a sequence dating back to the inaugural U20s competition. This has allowed coach Mark Anscombe to rest some of his key players, with captain Luke Whitelock and star fly-half Gareth Anscombe, the leading point scorer, on the bench among a vastly changed line-up. Fullback Beauden Barrett and centre Rhys Llewellyn are two of only a handful of players retained from the Welsh win.
Wales, second in the table thanks to a notable 34-8 victory over Argentina, tackle win-less Italy in the other Pool A game and welcome fly-half Matthew Morgan for the clash. Wales, technically, can still reach the semi-finals but in reality the biggest margin of defeat by any national side in Welsh rugby history has put them at such a disadvantage, with a far inferior point differential than any of the other contenders, that the play-offs for fifth to eighth are more likely.
Pool B remains up for grabs with Australia, who welcome back captain Colby Faingaa, No.8 Ed Quirk, towering second row Greg Peterson and scrum-half Matt Lucas, set to tackle second-placed France in a decisive game in Treviso. Australia racked up a half century of points against Tonga (54-7) and Fiji (50-25) and while France were also victorious against both sides their successes were not quite as emphatic. France have never reached a JWC final before and have not shown their real hand yet after stuttering past both Fiji (24-12) and Tonga (27-14), needing a late try by Pierre Gayraud to finally see off the latter on Tuesday.
"Our target can still be reached," insisted manager Philippe Sella. "I realise that, at a global level, there are three teams that dominate this sport: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. We are one point behind them [Australia] but the first target was to win the first two matches, and the second target was to score as much as possible. We have almost achieved them both.
"We need another victory to be sure that we'll go on in this Championship. I think we can do that. Australia managed to impose its own play in their first two matches. We haven't but I am hoping this will happen against them. It's going to be the hardest match."
South Africa head Pool C having shut out Scotland 33-0 and out-muscled Ireland 42-26 but they face an England side that have also beaten the Irish (33-25) and the Scots (39-18). Their clash in Padova, a repeat of last year's 3rd/4th play-off won 27-22 by the Baby Boks, will decide the pool although the loser could also qualify for the semi-finals should results go their way although their fate will most likely be a date with a rampant New Zealand.
South Africa have been boosted by Jaco Taute's arrival as replacement for the injured Craig Barry. The Super Rugby regular comes straight in at fullback to bolster a backline brimming with pace and playing behind a strong pack, including a dangerous back three of Nizaam Carr, Siyamthanda Kolisi and captain Arno Botha.
"We are playing England for the top honours in our pool, so there's naturally going to be plenty of tension and excitement building up to this fixture, which is great," said coach Dawie Theron. "We've managed to achieve maximum points without playing too much rugby during our matches against Ireland and Scotland.
"England have got skilful players across the park and will test us for 80 minutes. We are going to have to be sharp in our execution and our discipline will have to be right up there. We've defended well by only leaking two tries, and our structures will have to once again be up for the challenge of containing a team who have not been afraid to play an expansive game.
"We pretty much expect them to continue that trend on Saturday, which is why we'll have to defend well, and execute our own opportunities which come our way. It's a guaranteed semi final ticket for the winners, so we hope to be the successful team."
England have perhaps surprisingly elected to drop wing Christian Wade, their hat-trick hero against Scotland, to the bench, but more interesting is the first opportunity to see exciting prospects George Ford and Owen Farrell line up at fly-half and inside centre respectively.
For the likes of Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Fiji and Tonga, who are yet to taste victory at JWC 2011, the final day of pool action takes on added significance, with all desperate to avoid being consigned to the play-offs for ninth to 12th place and the threat of relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy for 2012.
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