The eighth edition of the World Rugby U20 Championship comes to a climax this weekend in Italy. The competition has pitted the twelve highest ranked junior teams against each other. The tournament has produced some spectacular rugby and also met its main goal of showcasing the talents of future full internationals. Although South African interest may have diminished somewhat after the Baby Boks’ semi-final loss to England there are still some fascinating encounters to take place.
France vs South Africa | Saturday 20 June | Cremona | 18:30
To Win (80mins) - Prices to be updated upon release
In typical French fashion the U20s have produced some scintillating displays coupled with the occasional no-show. This unpredictability is in evidence when you look at their contradicting performances against this year’s finalists. France came up against much fancied England in the pool stages and beat their arch rivals 30-18, then took on the junior All Blacks in the semi-final and were hammered 45-7. The French now have the daunting task of taking on a wounded Baby Bok side in the third-place playoff match. The French will look to front up against the massive Springbok pack in this encounter. Prop Clement Casets will be vital if the French are to negate the Boks’ forward dominance. The French will also have to plug the massive defensive holes that allowed New Zealand to run in a plethora of tries in their semi-final encounter.
The Baby Boks came into the tournament as third favourites with the bookies to lift the cup. Their pool consisted of the adventurous Australians, the hard-hitting Samoans and tournament hosts Italy. The Boks came through their pool undefeated and secured a four-try bonus point in all of their pool fixtures. Their undefeated run in the pool stages saw them ranked as top seeds for the semi-finals; they were pitted against best second-placed pool side England. The two sides did battle on Monday evening with ill discipline leading to a string of yellow cards for Dawie Theron’s charges. The Boks eventually went down 28-20 in a scrappy affair. Theron’s side must now endure the indignity of a third-place playoff against France. The game shouldn’t be a damp squib however with the teams being seeded for next year’s Championship in the order they finish this tournament in. The junior Boks will look to their forwards to provide a solid platform for the backs to attack. Key to this game plan will be front row stalwarts Ox Nche and Thomas du Toit who have produced some impressive displays in the green and gold. In the backline, fullback Warrick Gelant has shown an eye for the counter attack and may play a pivotal role in seeing the Baby Boks finish the tournament on a high note.
VERDICT: South Africa
I predict a tough day at the office for the young Frenchmen particularly their forward pack. The Baby Boks should canter to victory in this one.
New Zealand vs England | Saturday 20th June | Cremona | 20:30
To Lift the Cup
New Zealand 7/20
To Win (80mins)
New Zealand 4/10
New Zealand (-6) 9/10
England (+6) 9/10
On paper, the young Silver Ferns definitely have the best side at the tournament, names such as Otere Black and Akira Ioane will certainly become household in the coming years. The Baby Blacks also seem to have peaked just at the right time; they were workmanlike in the group stages and never really switched on their running game but ensured they got the job done. They went through to the semi-final as second seeds and had to take on third seeds France. Their encounter against the young Les Bleus was extremely one sided with Scott Robertson’s charges running out 45-7 victors. The final sees them take on defending champions England. The Baby Blacks will want to make use of their experience against the junior Roses and they have just the men to do this in Hurricanes ten Otere Black and Blues loosie Akira Ioane. Both players have had a taste of Super Rugby this year with Ioane being particularly impressive for the Blues. The New Zealanders also have try scoring machine Tevita Li who broke the U20 Championship try scoring record on his way to a hat-trick against France.
It has been a tournament of ups and downs for the men from England; they struggled in the pool stages, losing to France, but managed to sneak through to the semi-final via the best placed pool runner-up slot ahead of Australia. They put in a decent performance against the Baby Boks in the semi-final however the victory was more down to the opposition’s lack of discipline than English dominance. The English side will be heavily reliant on their Bath trio consisting of lock and skipper Charlie Ewels, influential pivot Rory Jennings and hard-running centre Max Clarke. This will be the fourth time that these two teams come up against each other in the final. The last of their four encounters was in 2011 where New Zealand emerged victorious. England have been the dominant force in recent years however and are gunning for their third successive championship, having won the tournament in 2013 and 2014.
VERDICT: New Zealand (-6) 9/10
With Super Rugby campaigners to call upon the New Zealanders hold the upper hand when it comes to experience. The Baby Blacks have showed against France how dangerous they are with ball in hand and if the English don’t get their defensive systems right they could be in for a long eighty minutes in Italy.