Stage set for semi-final battle
June 21, 2011
New Zealand's Brad Weber evades a tackle during his side's victory over Argentina at the weekend © Getty Images
The battle for the IRB Junior World Championship crown reaches the semi-final stage in Treviso on Wednesday.
Three-time defending champions New Zealand tackle Australia and England face France in an intriguing double header at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo with a place in Saturday's tournament finale up for the grabs.
England kick things off against France having accounted for South Africa in their latest outing and captain Alex Gray has urged his side to draw on that heroic performance. "We know their forwards are going to be really physical, and their backs are always quite unpredictable," said the Newcastle No.8. "We are going to have to keep our intensity up for the full 80 minutes. Defensively we're not going to change anything. South Africa are potentially the most physical team in the world and we stopped them dead. We might perhaps throw the ball around a bit more [though against France]."
Head coach Rob Hunter has shuffled his options with wingers Jonathan Joseph (London Irish) and Christian Wade (London Wasps), centre Guy Armitage (London Irish), tight-head Will Collier (Harlequins) and openside Matt Everard (Leicester Tigers) all coming into the starting XV. Leicester fly-half George Ford retains the No.10 shirt with Saracens' Owen Farrell named at inside centre as England look to follow up their 19-8 win over France in this year's Six Nations although they face a side that beat Australia 31-25 in the final round of pool matches.
New Zealand will be looking to extend their incredible run of 18 straight victories - dating back to the inaugural tournament in 2008 - when they go head-to-head with cross Tasman rivals Australia in a replay of last year's final that was won 62-17 by the Baby Blacks.
Despite having seen his side run in an incredible 30 tries in their opening three games, coach Mark Anscombe is not underestimating the threat posed by Australia. "There is always great rivalry any time New Zealand plays Australia in any sporting code," said Anscombe, who having rested a number of players against Argentina in their last game, has returned son Gareth (No.10), captain Luke Whitelock (No 8), Charles Piutau (left wing) and Lima Sopoaga (centre) to his starting line-up.
"We have really been trying to develop this team and get through pool play and we have done that with not too many injuries," he added. "But now . . . we can't look any further than Australia. The challenge in New Zealand is, having had three teams win it, no-one wants to be in the team that doesn't win it, so they are quite a competitive group."
Last year's result will have no bearing on the encounter in Treviso, he said. "It's a different challenge and a different team and clashes between New Zealand and Australia are always tough games -- we know we are in for a battle. I am sure they will be looking to avenge that loss (in Argentina). They have got six or seven players and coaching staff back from last year and you never like getting beaten like that. We have only got two guys back and only one guy who played in that game so it is a totally different team and I think both teams have different strengths and weaknesses so last year's result means nothing."
Australia's Colby Faingaa, one of those on the wrong end of last year's final result, is well aware of the task facing his side. "They are the best side at this level and have demonstrated it. It is going to be a hard game, but if you want to be the best in the world you have to play the best and over the last four years at Under 20 level that has been them. If we want to call ourselves the best then we have to beat them."
Elsewhere, Wales face Fiji in Padova in 5th place semi-final with South Africa taking on Ireland in the other clash. Scotland line-up against Tonga in Rovigo while Argentina face Italy in the 9th place semi-finals.
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