England edge Boks for final four spot
June 18, 2011
Joe Launchbury played a starring role in England's victory over South Africa in Padova © Getty Images
New Zealand will tackle Australia and England will face France in this year's IRB Junior World Championship semi-finals following a thrilling final round of pool action in Italy.
Three-time defending champions New Zealand powered into the final four with a 48-15 victory over Argentina - their 18th straight victory in the competition - that saw them top Pool A. France upset Australia 24-18 to top Pool B and England battled past South Africa 26-20 to take the honours in Pool C. As top seeds, the Baby Blacks take on their cross-Tasman rivals Australia, who qualify as the best runners-up having edged out South Africa on points difference, with England set to go head-to-head with their European foes France who will be making their first appearance in the final four.
South Africa must pick themselves up from the the disappointment of failing to make the semi-finals for the first time to face Ireland with Wales tackling Fiji in the semi-finals for fifth to eighth place in Padova, while the threat of relegation to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in 2012 hangs over the losers of the Argentina v Italy and Scotland v Tonga encounters in Rovigo.
New Zealand coach Mark Anscombe had the luxury of being able to rest many of his players with their semi-final berth already secured, but the Baby Blacks still ran in another seven tries to see off the challenge of Argentina. However, they did not have it all their own way for the first time in the tournament with only two points separating the two sides at the midway point of the first half at the Stadio Plebiscito in Padova.
Mitchell Scott touched down in the fifth minute, swiftly followed by touchdowns from centres Francis Saili and Rhys Llewellyn, but Argentina hit back with their first ever tries against New Zealand in JWC history through hooker Lucas Sartori and Juan Cruz Guillemain to make it 17-15. New Zealand's response was immediate, fullback Beauden Barrett rounding off a flowing move, but once again Argentina created some good scoring opportunities, only to see some resolute defence and handling errors mean they came to nothing. Prop Gregory Pleasants-Tate touched down to increase New Zealand's advantage to 31-15 at the break, but within minutes of the restart the rain began to fall and the Baby Blacks could only add two further tries through Saili and TJ Perenara, leaving them one shy of 100 tries in the pool stages.
France had failed to impress in their victories over Fiji and Tonga, but they came alive in Treviso with a magnificent display of attacking flair and solid defence to overcome their more fancied opponents Australia. The French set up their victory with three memorable converted tries through Jean Bernard Pujol, Geoffrey Palis and Jean Marcelin Buttin inside the first half hour as they stormed the Australian defence with a ferocity and panache they had failed to show up to that point.
Australia regrouped and found their groove as the half progressed, hitting back with two tries in a matter of minutes just before half time through Kimami Sitauti and Michael Hooper to go into the break trailing 24-18. Both sides created scoring opportunities in the second half but were each only able to convert one of them, meaning France were still six points clear when the final whistle went to spark wild celebrations among the exhausted players in blue with their first semi final appearance confirmed.
Inventive in attack and steely in defence, England saw off a dogged South Africa at the Stadio Plebiscito in Padova to guarantee their place in the semi-finals for the fourth successive year. Under the watchful eye of England manager Martin Johnson, the U20s were never headed throughout a pulsating match and withstood a wave of South African attacks late in the second half after fly-half Johan Goosen had kept the Baby Boks in the match with five penalties.
Fly-half George Ford, the youngest player at JWC 2011, kicked England into an early lead with a second minute penalty before centre Elliot Daly crossed for the first try, only for South African flanker Nizaam Carr to cut the deficit with what turned out to be his side's only try. Ford increased England's lead with another penalty, but the sides went in tied at 11-11 at half time after two long-range penalties from Goosen. That deadlock lasted less than a minute before England captain and No.8 Alex Gray finished a sweeping passing movement with a try.
Goosen kept South Africa in touch with two more penalties, either side of one from Ford, before England replacement wing Christian Wade went on a dash down the left, broke a tackle and touched down between the posts for his fourth try of the tournament. When Ford converted with less than 10 minutes to play, England appeared to have the match in their keeping, but still South Africa refused to concede. Wing Wandile Mjekevu slipped several tackles to set up a try-scoring opportunity for his team but the England defence held firm and cleared from the scrum.
Rob Hunter's team were camped in their own half but they remained resolute as the Baby Boks threw everything at them in the final minutes. Goosen reduced the gap to a converted try with his fifth penalty before Mjekevu made one last valiant effort to breach the England defence, only to be pushed over the touch line.
Elsewhere in Pool A, Wales knew they needed a miracle to have any hopes of reaching the semi-finals for the second time after the record loss to New Zealand earlier in the week, but coach Richard Webster will have been pleased how his charges bounced back to beat Italy 56-6 at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso.
Fiji came out on top in the battle of the Pacific Islanders in Pool B, scoring four tries to beat Tonga 36-18 and crucially collect a bonus point win which means they will compete for fifth to eighth places over the final two days of the tournament. And in Pool C, Ireland overcame Scotland 30-13 in their all-Celtic affair in Rovigo.
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