England and New Zealand have won eight titles between them and will contest the 10th World Rugby U20 Championship final after ending the hopes of 2012 winners South Africa and France in contrasting fashions at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Georgia on Tuesday.
Defending champions England reached their fifth successive final after a titanic battle with the Junior Springboks in the first semi-final, one only settled when captain Zach Mercer went over for his second try with four minutes to go to secure his side a 24-22 victory.
New Zealand, the five-time champions who have won all of their previous meetings with England in the title decider, looked on course for a more routine win when hooker Asafo Aumua's try gave them a 36-0 lead after 45 minutes, but France then did what only they can and set up a tense finale with 26 unanswered points.
Elsewhere it was left to Georgia to cause the upset of day with a 26-25 victory over Argentina that was far more convincing than the scoreline suggested to secure their place in the U20 Championship for a third year in front of their Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. Australia, Scotland and Ireland were also victorious with the latter to face Georgia on the final day for ninth place.
The tournament concludes on Sunday with the action getting underway at 12:00 local time (GMT +4) when Samoa tackle Argentina in the 11th place play-off at Avchala Stadium with the loser relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2018. Scotland will then face Australia for fifth place before Wales meet Italy in the seventh place play-off.
The ninth place play-off between Ireland and hosts Georgia gets proceedings at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium underway at 13:00 before South Africa and France battle for third place and then England meet New Zealand in the final.
SEMI-FINAL: ENGLAND 24-22 SOUTH AFRICA
England captain Zach Mercer was his side's hero for the second match in a row, the number eight powering over for a converted try that gave the defending champions the lead with only four minutes to go in their semi-final with South Africa to seal a place in the final for the fifth consecutive year.
Mercer had stolen the ball after 31 phases of Australian attack to secure the 20-19 win that gave England top spot in Pool A in the last round and he led from the front with two tries at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium to ensure they maintained their record of never having lost to South Africa in the semi-finals.
The fifth meeting between these nations at the semi-final stage promised much and delivered almost immediately when England captain Zach Mercer found some space from close range, but the defending champions' lead only lasted until the 10th minute when their number eight Juarno Augustus rounded off a flowing passing move by barging through two defenders to crash over the line.
Curwin Bosch, who had made the break that set up the slick handling down the left touchline, added the conversion to tie the scores at 7-7. England, who had won their previous semi-final meetings with South Africa, had the upper hand and went in front again after their fly-half Max Malins sold the Junior Springbok defence a dummy and stepped three players before offloading for his half-back Alex Mitchell to score by the posts.
Malins added the conversion and a penalty to give England a 17-7 advantage and that nearly grew bigger on the half hour mark when South Africa were almost made to rue Embrose Papier's decision to take a quick tap penalty, the ball lost and hacked up field with Gabriel Ibitoye dragging Manie Libbok to earn England a five-metre lineout. Fortunately for South Africa, England knocked on a few phases later and the danger was averted.
England lost centre Theo Brophy-Clews to injury a minute before the break and it got worse for them when Augustus burrowed his way over for his second try of the match with the clock in red after a number of pick-and-goes. Bosch, though, pulled his conversion right of the posts so South Africa went in to the break trailing 17-12.
The Six Nations champions started the second half the brighter with Ibitoye forced into touch and then the winger hacked on a kick by replacement scrum-half Harry Randall, but South Africa heaved a sigh of relief when it went dead. The Junior Springboks began to dominate the set pieces, just as Wales and Australia had done before them, to make life difficult for England and then Malins uncharacteristically put a free-kick out on the full to give South Africa an attacking opportunity which they didn't waste with second-row Ruben van Heerden diving over a sea of bodies to edge his side ahead 19-17.
Malins saw his penalty attempt drift wide in the 65th minute and his opposite number Bosch made no mistake when presented with a kick with eight minutes to increase the advantage to five points. England, though, are no stranger to late finishes and the backs created the opportunity for Mercer to charge through and give his fly-half an easy conversion to reclaim a lead they would not surrender.
England captain Zach Mercer: "This was a physical match. South Africa are a world-class side. We knew they would be big strong boys but it was mental as well. The pride of wearing that jersey once again was outstanding. We did it against Australia, we did it again now. We just need some easy win at some point. We knew that the South Africans would come out flying for 20-30 minutes in the second half, we just needed to weather the storm and we did that. And once again some magic from the backs and we managed to score under the sticks and it was easy for Max Malins to slot over. Now we are looking forward to playing two world-class opponents France or New Zealand in the final."
South Africa captain Ernst van Rhyn: "I think we did well the way we came back when they scored early. After the break we just wanted to play rugby in the right side of the field and keep the ball a bit more. When we kept the ball for few phases we had a good go-forward and from there we scored some tries. But in the end small errors costed us dearly and I think we had some soft moments in defence. Credit to England, well done with the victory. I'm still proud of the guys. We gathered our all and fought to the end. We don't care who our next opponent will be. We are lucky to have one more opportunity to wear the jersey. We'll see what happens between New Zealand and France and whoever we get we'll give it a big shot."
SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 39-26 FRANCE
New Zealand had looked set for a margin of victory as emphatic as their only previous meeting with France on the U20 Championship stage – 45-7 at this stage two years ago – but then had to withstand an almighty second-half fight-back from France to book their place in a seventh final.
Matches between New Zealand and France at any level have produced some epic storylines and this semi-final hadn't even kicked off when one took place in Tbilisi, Les Bleuets linking arms for the Haka and then refusing to break, resulting in a stand-off for almost two minutes before referee Mike Adamson managed to get the New Zealanders to move away.
France captain Florian Verhaeghe had a hint of a smug smile on his face at 'winning' this showdown but it would have quickly turned to a grimace after New Zealand took the lead from a second-minute penalty by Tiaan Falcon, the tournament's top point scorer. A burst from captain Luke Jacobson set up the first try of the match, Will Jordan involved twice before the full-back went over for his fifth try in Georgia.
New Zealand were scoring at more than a point a minute and it got worse for France with Falcon scoring their second try after a series of pick-and-goes by the forwards. The fly-half failed to add the conversion but it was 15-0 after only 11 minutes. It got worse for France when a moment of madness from flanker Baptiste Pesenti saw him kick out during a maul and see yellow, New Zealand going down field to score through Dalton Papali'i, the flanker powering through and using ever inch of his 191cm frame to stretch out and put the ball on the line.
Around the half hour mark New Zealand had two tries ruled out by the TMO in the corner, first Will Jordan was forced into touch as he went to dot down by Arthur Retiere and then hooker Asafo Aumua met the same fate as a period of pressure on the French five-metre line. Aumua then charged 40 metres down the wing, bouncing off a French defender and as the ball went wide, Falcon swung a pass behind his back with Caleb Clark eventually going over.
The New Zealand coaching team stood to applaud that moment of magic from their fly-half and their charges trooped off at half-time with a 29-0 advantage, albeit only after some determined defence kept France out in their first real attack of the match, replacement Theo Millet bursting through a gap in the defence but being hauled down as he side could find no way through the black wall.
New Zealand scored their fifth try within five minutes of the restart with Aumua cutting a strong line to crash over the line, but that score seemed to awaken Les Bleuets and two tries within as many minutes brought them back to 36-14 down. The first came from lineout ball, France winning it and using scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud as first receiver for him to cut a line through the defence.
France then lost the ball metres from their own line but Alex Arrate managed to strip the ball and turn defence into attack with a quick ball to Romain Buros, the replacement charging down the wing as New Zealand scrambled in defence to temporarily halt the attack. However, France worked the ball wide for Pesenti to atone for his yellow card with a try in the corner.
They weren't finished there, though, as France used their driving maul to perfection to allow replacement prop Peato Mauvaka to crash over in the 64th minute with New Zealand unable to handle the tactic. Then another moment of magic from France made it 26 unanswered points for them since Aumua's try, centre Pablo Uberti breaking and then kicking through for Buros to kick back in field for Lucas Tauzin to dot down.
France had their tails up and New Zealand could barely get their hands on the ball, but then a determined run by Jacobson earned his side a penalty which Falcon made no mistake with to give them the breathing space of a 13-point lead with only three minutes to play. At the final whistle New Zealand were left relieved to have established a 36-0 lead, while France will wonder what might have been had they played like that in the first half.
New Zealand captain Luke Jacobson: "We got a bit complacent in the second half and the French were able to come back. We know they've got French flair, they bring a lot of attacking footy and they caught us off guard a little bit. We believed too early that the game was over and got a little bit complacent but we take lot of learnings from that. We learned that we have got to keep our foot on the throttle and we can't let them have anything. We are very excited to play England in the final. They've got a great attacking footy style so we have to bring out a full defensive effort for the full 80 minutes."
France coach Philippe Boher: "We lost the first half 29-0 and we won the second half 26-10. Maybe the boys played like the New Zealand team in the first and then they reacted too late so that is something we must work on. We must remember that we drew with South Africa and what we did in the second half here because there were some good points. We need to play for the 80 minutes against South Africa."
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: AUSTRALIA 42-19 ITALY
A superb individual display from outside-centre Izaia Perese and a totally dominant scrum helped Australia see off a battling Italy in the second match of the day at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi to guarantee them a top six finish.
Perese became the fourth player to score a hat-trick in this year's tournament and made an incredible 190 metres in the match. While his first was a stunning solo effort from 70 metres out, Perese owed his second to outstanding openside flanker Liam Wright who put his team-mate away with a well-executed offload for a 14-0 lead.
Italian handling errors and a back-pedalling scrum continued to hamper their efforts to convert pressure into points, but the introduction of playmaker Antonio Rizzi in the 27th minute turned the tide in their favour.
Rizzi instigated the move that led to the Azzurrini’s first try, taking the ball to the line before good hands from Lodovico Manni and Roberto Dal Zilio put Giovanni D'Onofrio over in the corner. Australian full-back Liam McNamara prevented D'Onofrio grounding the ball but the replacement winger managed to pop the ball up in the in-goal area for Dal Zilio to dot down. The fly-half then picked off a speculative pass from second-row Harrison Hockings on halfway before putting D'Onofrio away on a clear run to the line to cut the deficit to two points at the break.
Whatever coach Simon Cron said to his troops, it clearly worked as Australia came out firing in the second half, scoring three tries between the 47th and 56th minutes. Perese completed his hat-trick before livewire scrum-half Harrison Goddard and centre Sione Tuipulotu got in on the act.
With Goddard kicking five from five, Australia led 35-12 as the match entered the final quarter. Italy pulled back seven points when Dal Zilio crashed over for a converted try, but another forceful push from the forwards led to a final score for Australia, captain and number eight Reece Hewat left with a simple run in after the Azzurrini scrum crumbled under pressure.
Australia hat-trick hero Izaia Perese: "It's pretty rare to get a hat-trick but it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the boys putting it in. I was just there for one per cent, it was the boys who did the hard yards to put me in that position. (At half-time) we spoke about sticking to our structures and to really respect Italy. We got a bit greedy in our 22 and kept running the ball when we really needed to exit. I think we just stuck to our processes and it came right for us in the end. It (the U20 Championship) has really made me reconnect my love for the game, it really has. I'm playing at 13 again, with my best mates, and it is unreal. I have learned a lot."
Italy coach Alessandro Troncon: "At the end the score was a little bit heavy, we made mistakes and lost too much ball and we paid the price. The players are starting to learn what the standard of play is at this level, the first professional level, and how to reach that level."
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: SCOTLAND 29-25 WALES
Darcy Graham topped and tailed a fine team performance with tries as Scotland set up a fifth-place showdown with Australia with a four tries to three victory over Six Nations rivals Wales, one that guarantees their best-ever finish in the U20 Championship.
John Dalziel’s side got on the wrong side of referee Pierre Brousset in the initial stages, conceding six penalties in the first quarter as well as a try to Wales captain Will Jones after centre Ioan Nicholas was twice involved in the build-up.
Neat hands down the blindside from fly-half Connor Eastgate and full-back Blair Kinghorn saw Scotland draw level on 21 minutes though, before Eastgate took them in front with the conversion.
Seven minutes later Scotland doubled their score when Ross McCann crossed the whitewash after the forwards had softened up the defence with a series of drives at close quarters. Eventually the ball was spread wide and the bustling centre ignored the men outside him to go it alone and barge his way over.
Silky skills from fly-half Arwel Robson led to a try for his centre Ioan Nicholas just past the half-hour mark, but Scotland regained the initiative when captain Callum Hunter-Hill dotted down from a lineout catch-and-drive.
Scotland looked to have scored through the same method on the stroke of half-tine but a Welsh hand got under the ball and they had to settle for a seven-point lead at half-time against a side that had beaten them 64-35 in the Six Nations in February.
Two penalties from Robson to one from Eastgate ensured the game was on a knife-edge as it entered the final quarter. Brilliant maul defence from Wales saw them turnover Scotland inside their own 22 on two occasions, before Robson reached out and scored in the corner despite a last-ditch tackle from Matt Fagerson to put his side ahead for the second time in the match. Robson nailed the touchline conversion to put Wales 25-22 up with nine minutes to go.
Scotland did not panic, though, and after a patient build-up numbering 20 phases a chink of light finally appeared in the Welsh defence, which Graham needed no second invitation to go through from 15 metres out.
Scotland captain Callum Hunter-Hill: "I'm absolutely buzzing and lost for words. We were written off before the tournament and we took our goals step by step and it paid off today. Credit to Wales, they were really, really physical. I've also got to give credit to our backs as well, they got us out of a lot of danger today."
Wales coach Jason Strange: "I’m really disappointed with the result but I thought Scotland were very efficient in what they did, and they played to their strengths and full credit to them. If we were to look at our own game, with the limited amount of possession we had we played some really good stuff. We were a threat with the ball but it comes back to the fundamentals of the game – if you don’t get the fundamentals right then it becomes difficult and that proved the case today."
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ARGENTINA 25-26 GEORGIA
The final margin may have been a single point, but in reality Georgia were fully deserving of their biggest ever scalp at U20 level and it was only a last-minute try by Argentina captain Tomas Malanos that denied them a greater margin of victory before their Prime Minister at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium.
A repeat of the opening day encounter which Argentina won 36-27 after a titantic battle and there was similarities with this match as once again Georgia's test-capped scrum-half Gela Aprasidze punished Los Pumitas' indiscretions by kicking penalty after penalty, this time to build a lead for the Junior Lelos to the delight of the home crowd.
Georgia enjoyed the perfect start, their number eight Arsen Machaladze bursting through the middle before the ball was lost backwards, they managed to recycle it and centre Giorgi Kveseladze made some ground before offloading to second-row Saba Saghinadze, who used his power to force his way over the line. Aprasidze added the conversion but Georgia were fortunate in the ninth minute that flanker Santiago Ruiz lost the ball as he went over the line.
Argentina did get on the board through Tomas Albornoz's penalty – the 50th in the tournament – in the ninth minute but Georgia's response was swift when they punished Los Pumitas for taking the ball back into their 22 and kicking it out on the full with a perfectly executed driving maul from the resulting lineout, captain Ilia Spanderashvili dotting the ball down to make it 14-3 after Aprasidze's conversion.
Georgia then lost prop Lasha Tabidze to the sin-bin and Argentina came roaring back, first a great step from full-back Bautista Delguy sending him over in the corner for the try and then a second penalty from Albornoz to cut the deficit to 14-11. Aprasidze added a penalty to steady the Georgians just before his prop returned from the sin-bin.
Ruiz then turned villain again for Argentina just before the half hour mark when, after his team had worked an overlap out wide, he tried to offload the ball one-handed and instead lost it forward to prevent a certain try. Los Pumitas would end up going in at half-time trailing 23-11 after Aprasidze punished their indiscipline further with two penalties.
Argentina had to score next and they did within two minutes of the restart through centre Facundo Ferrario to cut the deficit to five points, but that would be as close as they ever got to victory against a Georgian side drawing inspiration from their home crowd. Aprasidze missed two penalties, including one from inside his own half, but his penalty with four minutes to go was ultimately decisive after Delguy broke and kicked through for Malanos to win the race to touch down with time up.
Georgia coach Ilia Maisuradze: "Initially our pragmatic plan for this tournament was to win this fourth game and stay in this Championship. We play this tournament for the second year in a row and it's very important for Georgian rugby to retain this place for few more years. I'm so glad we did it. All the credits go to the boys. You should play chess when planning your pool matches. Our pool was very hard, that's why we decided to give a rest to some players in the third game and focus on the fourth. We knew how many minutes each Argentinian player had played so far and we built our game on physicality and contact to run them out of energy. Today we had a strong start, we especially dominated in the first 15 minutes. Their attacks were also very sharp but we were ahead for the whole match and the penalty scored by Gela (Aprasidze) gave us a final relief."
Argentina captain Tomas Malanos: "We couldn't move on from our mistakes. We conceded a high quantity of penalties. They started scoring points and got a good result. We tried to play with the backs and score tries but they defended really well and scored tries with the mauls. We have to win the last game, we have to focus on that. We should bring down the quantity of penalties and mistakes."
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND 52-26 SAMOA
Determined to put three pool losses behind them and cast aside the spectre of relegation, 2016 runners-up Ireland took the route one approach from the off in their ninth place semi-final with Samoa under deep blue skies at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi.
In a power-packed first-half performance that brought four tries for the forwards, front-rowers Ronan Kelleher and Peter Cooper crashed over from pick-and-goes before second-row Fineen Wycherley used all his 196cm frame to reach out and plant the ball down under the posts.
Having seen big second-row Theodore Solipo charge over from 30 metres, Samoa appeared to be building momentum as the half came to a close, but Ireland took advantage of Howard Tagoai’s yellow card for not retreating 10 to score on the stroke of half-time through Oisin Dowling.
Winger Calvin Nash turned the Samoan defence inside and out after collecting a neat grubber kick from Conor Dean to get the second-half scoring underway, but they were denied further scores after replacement scrum-half Pupi Ah See pulled off try-saving tackles on Alan Tynan and Jack Stafford. Setu Enoka then scored from close range for Samoa’s second try and Ricky Pauli Ene landed his first kick at the fourth attempt to make the score 31-12 to Ireland.
David McCarthy came on at centre and had a hand in the next try as Kelleher crashed over for his second and Ireland’s sixth of the match. Shortly after, Ciaran Frawley took an offload from Cooper to get his name on the scoresheet, following a yellow card to Tanielu Tele'a for kicking out at an opponent while on the floor.
A mazy run from Michael Silvester nearly led to another try, but it was Samoa who scored next through Ah See. McCarthy was then robbed of a deserved try when the TMO ruled he had failed to get downward pressure on the ball after receiving a high shot from Alexander Pohla. From the resulting penalty, Ireland kicked to touch and Caelan Doris’ 13th carry of the match from the resulting catch-and-drive saw the number eight cross the whitewash just before time was up. Afioga Ielemia ensured Samoan had the final say, though, when he crashed from a metre out with the clock in red.
Ireland captain Paul Boyle: "We're delighted to get the win because Samoa are a really good side. We'd done our homework on them and concentrated on getting our own performance right, and I think we got most aspects right. There were a few harsh words after the first few games and we really stepped it up today. We haven't shown all that we can do but hopefully we have given a good glimpse and we can now push on in the last game. In the pool stages, we were close enough in two of the games, there was only one score in it against Scotland and Italy, and I think we just got a bit more right today."
Samoa coach Mahonri Schwalger: "They (Ireland) are a pretty big team and they are well structured in the way they play, that sort of European style with a good scrum and lineout, and they are also pretty clinical when they have the ball. Every time we had the ball and stuck to our patterns, we were pretty good. Sometimes we gave the ball away at crucial times though. I guess it is a learning process for most of our boys that when you play against these bigger teams, you need to take all your chances. We've got to learn fast and fight to keep our spot against either Argentina or Georgia."