The two most successful teams in World Rugby U20 Championship history will contest the 2017 final with England seeking a fourth title in five years and New Zealand a sixth crown since the tournament was introduced in 2008.
New Zealand have had the edge in their four previous meetings with England in the title decider, winning them all in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2015, although the margin of victory has shrunk with each success, from a one-sided 38-3 in Wales to a titanic 21-16 battle in Italy.
With both captains promising some “really good attacking rugby” from their teams, this year's encounter at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Sunday is one not to be missed.
Player of the Tournament nominee and England captain Zach Mercer has described the showdown with New Zealand as “100 per cent” the perfect final for him with his Kiwi heritage, even if family loyalties will be divided, while his counterpart Luke Jacobson would love to emulate his brother Mitchell who was an unused replacement in the 2015 success in the Italian city of Cremona and has his jersey and medal framed on the wall at home.
“I am really excited for this game,” insisted Mercer. “I think two world-class teams going head to head and there is going to be some really good attacking rugby on show so it is going to be one of the best games of the tournament and I am really looking forward to getting out there and playing it and hopefully people watching will enjoy it as much as I will.”
While all eyes will be on the battle to be crowned 2017 champions, the action gets underway at 12:00 local time (GMT +4) with the 11th place play-off between Argentina and Samoa at Avchala Stadium with the loser to be relegated to the second-tier World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2018. The two other matches at Avchala will see Scotland meet Australia for fifth place before Wales tackle Italy with seventh place the prize.
The ninth place play-off between Ireland and hosts Georgia opens proceedings at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium at 13:00 and this will witness a first with an audio description to be provided to visually-impaired people attending the match for the first time in the country. A detailed narrative will be provided with visually-impaired fans able to access the frequency using just their mobile phones and earphones wherever they are in the stadium.
South Africa and France will then meet again in the third place play-off, having already created a piece of U20 Championship history of their own in Georgia, before the final match of the 10th edition of this premier age-grade tournament between England and New Zealand takes centre stage at Mikheil Meskhi Stadium at 18:00 local time.
FINAL: ENGLAND V NEW ZEALAND
Two years have passed since England and New Zealand last met on the U20 Championship stage and for Mercer the opportunity to face the Haka and take on the country his father Gary played rugby league for is one that can't come around quickly enough, not least to test himself against the competition's most successful team.
“For me being half-Kiwi myself, I have never had the opportunity to play against the Baby Blacks before so I am really looking forward to that opportunity,” the number eight insisted. “My family back home in New Zealand will be watching. They will be cheering me on but they obviously want New Zealand to win and that is an interesting balance there.
“I am looking forward to testing myself against the best boys down in the southern hemisphere and in New Zealand and see what they are about really and I'm really looking forward to facing the Haka for the first time. One hundred per cent (it is the perfect final for me). When I came into this tournament I always wanted to play against New Zealand. I hoped it might happen in the pool draw, but now we have the chance to play against them and I can't wait.”
New Zealand are the leading try-scorers in the tournament with 31 – 10 more than their final opponents England – and while captain Jacobson insists that their strength is “when we have got ball in hand” because “some of our players can do pretty awesome things”, Mercer believes we haven't yet seen the best of the defending champions yet in Georgia.
“They have got the ability to score from anywhere and from one to 15 they are all ball players. They are going to be the same as South Africa in that they are going to be a strong, physical, set-piece side. We watched them against France, they put an amazing first 40 minutes in but then they started to die off in the second 40 so that is something we will try to exploit. Our ball retention has to be massive and our discipline as well to slow this world-class outfit down.
“I strongly believe we haven't seen our best yet. We have seen glimpses for 10 minutes, for 20 minutes but I don't believe we have seen an 80-minute performance and I am looking forward to going out there and showing the world what this England team is about and what we can bring to the world stage.”
Jacobson is equally wary of the England attack but is also confident that the fact the defending champions are the fifth European nation his team have faced in the tournament this year – after Scotland, Italy, Ireland and France – will stand them in good stead to deal with the challenges that England put in their path.
“It has been a lot different, European teams love to keep it in the forwards a little bit more with their drives and that. I think we have fronted up to that really well, especially in our scrums. I think we have had quite a strong scrum against all the teams so far and hopefully we can keep that going and keep up our lineout defence,” explained the back-row.
“We started off a little shaky against lineout defences which is probably our main issues against European teams but we have come out real good against that now and are really confident in the team that we can handle that now. I would much rather have had all European teams than southern hemisphere and get a northern hemisphere team in the final who play a different brand of footy. We are pretty accustomed to it now.
“England are going to bring a great attacking game. They have got some good key players in their team to drive the attack and they have got a great defensive game as well that is going to try and shut us down, but hopefully we can just play our own game and bring our defence as well and dominate. Everybody is going to be ucy team comes here to do. They come here to win the main prize, they don't come here to win second place.”
In team news, New Zealand have made only one forced change to the side that reached their seventh U20 Championship final with Player of the Tournament contender Tiaan Falcon ruled out through concussion. His place is taken by Stephen Perofeta, who only arrived in Tbilisi on Friday but is in good form after starting the Blues' victory over the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park on 7 June.
Perofeta played in the 2016 tournament in Manchester alongside Jacobson and the captain believes this should make it relatively easy for the Blues pivot to slot in at such short notice. “He is a class player, that is why he is playing against the Lions back in New Zealand. Tiaan is a great player as well, it is a huge loss for us as he runs the game so well, but we are jut lucky enough to have someone like Stevie come in and replace him.”
England, meanwhile, have made five changes to their starting line-up since their late win over South Africa, one of them forced with centre Theo Brophy Clews helped off after injuring his foot in that match. Jacob Umaga, the nephew of New Zealand legend Tana Umaga, comes in to replace him at outside centre while Harry Randall gets the nod at scrum-half and along with fly-half Max Malins are the only players from the 2016 final involved on Sunday.
The other three changes all come in the pack with Ralph Adams-Hale returning at loose-head prop after being a late withdrawal from the semi-final line-up. Ciaran Knight is selected at tight-head with Jack Nay starting in the second row in place of Justin Clegg, who drops to the bench for a match in which England will be looking to match the exploits of their women's team who beat New Zealand 29-21 in Rotorua on Saturday to win the International Women's Rugby Series.
THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: SOUTH AFRICA V FRANCE
These two sides created history on day one when they played out the first draw in U20 Championship history at Avchala Stadium, the Junior Springboks needing a try from Player of the Tournament nominee Juarno Augustus and Curwin Bosch's conversion with the final kick to tie the scores at 23-23 and deny France a first ever win at this level over South Africa.
France will come into this third place play-off on a high after their second-half display against New Zealand when they scored 26 unanswered points, but will be only too aware that they cannot give South Africa a 36-0 headstart as they did the five-time champions in the semi-final. However, they have been forced into a number of changes with fly-half Mathieu Jalibert and prop Ugo Boniface ruled out through injury and hooker Hassane Kolingar and centre Alex Arrate suspended after being cited following the semi-final.
Only eight players remain in the starting line-up from that match with three of them making a positional switch, including their impressive scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud who shifts out to fill the void left by Jalibert's ankle injury to create what could be an exciting half-back partnership with Arthur Coville. Pablo Uberti moves in to inside centre with centre Theo Millet and full-back Romain Buros rewarded for their displays off the bench in the semi-final with a starting berth against South Africa as France look to finish third for the first time.
South Africa coach Chean Roux has made only five changes to the side beaten 24-22 by England in their semi-final, including the return of blindside flanker Zain Davids after he served his two-match suspension following his red card against Georgia in round two. Manie Libbok moves forward to fly-half in place of the injured Bosch with Jeanluc Cilliers filling the vacated full-back spot.
“It's a massive game for us. You are only as good as your last game and we would like to go out on a high. The players have worked very hard to get to where they are, and mentally I think they are in a good place and ready for the match,” said Roux. “It is going to be interesting to see what they are going to come up with, but if all goes according to plan, it will be a great day for us.
“I think they (France) are going to try to slow the game down and they will want to come hard at us in the scrums and lineouts. Knowing the French, the first 20 minutes are going to be crucial as that is where the foundation will be laid, so we have to come out guns blazing and apply pressure on them as quickly as possible.”
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: SCOTLAND V AUSTRALIA
Scotland are already guaranteed their best-ever finish in the U20 Championship regardless of the outcome against Australia at Avchala Stadium, but the team will be hoping to replicate the 24-19 victory their senior counterparts enjoyed over the Wallabies in Sydney on Saturday to put the finishing touches to an impressive campaign.
Coach John Dalziel has kept faith with the same starting XV that beat Wales 29-25 in round four to ensure Scotland would better their eighth-place finishes of the last two years, meaning their dangerous back three of Robbie Nairn, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn will be hoping the forward pack can again provide the platform for them to once again showcase their attacking prowess.
“We’re immensely proud of what this group has achieved so far, but there’s still a job to be done against Australia,” insisted Dalziel. “The match is going to be a huge test of our character as Australia are an excellent side, but we feel we’re up to the challenge both mentally and physically. This group has shown what a quality side they are and the players still have a lot more to give as individuals and as a collective. We’re delighted to have made history, but we’re not looking to stop there. The potential for further success in this tournament and beyond is huge.”
His Australian counterpart Simon Cron has made just one change to the side that cut loose against Italy in the second half to win 42-19, the tournament's youngest player Semisi Tupou coming back onto the left wing in place of Simon Kennewell. Australia finished sixth in Manchester last year and will be hoping to repeat their two victories over Scotland in that event to end their campaign on a positive note.
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: WALES V ITALY
Italy, like Scotland, are guaranteed their best finish in U20 Championship after avoiding a fourth successive relegation play-off, their previous best being 11th place on five occasions. Coach Alessandro Troncon has again made wholesale changes from match to match, among them giving Antonio Rizzi the starting fly-half spot after he came off the bench early and inspired the Azzurrini to fight back and trail Australia only 14-12 at half-time.
Only four players remain from that loss to Australia, among them captain and tight-head prop Marco Riccioni who has started all five matches, but with the likes of impressive number eight Giovanni Licata, scrum-half Charly Trussardi, winger Giovanni D'Onofrio, centres Dario Schiabel and vice-captain Marco Zanon, and full-back Massimo Cioffi this is a stronger team fielded by Italy.
Wales won 27-5 when the sides met in the Six Nations in February and coach Jason Strange is eager for his team to finish the tournament on a high with their second win to match their seventh-place finish of 12 months ago. There are two changes to both the pack and backline, including the selection of Reuben Morgan-Williams at scrum-half and James Botham at number eight after his recovery from injury.
“The players won’t be lacking any emotion and they are determined to finish the tournament with a good performance,” said Strange. “This tournament is all about emotion and every game we have lost has been in the balance so the positive is there is so much learning the players can take. Every moment in a game matters, every minute counts and the players will take a huge amount from the quality of experience and hopefully understand the standards they are striving for.
“We certainly want to leave Georgia on a positive ... When you look at their results so far they have had narrow results against Scotland and Ireland and New Zealand are at a different level. We expect them to bring a lot of physicality and that’s something we have to be ready for. We want to play well but it won’t just happen, the players have to match that physicality. If we play well it should be a good way to finish the tournament.”
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND V GEORGIA
The relief was palpable for both sides on Tuesday when they secured their first victories of the tournament and with them the knowledge that their place in the 2018 edition was assured and they would not face the nerve-jangling relegation play-off on the final day. Georgia, by upsetting Argentina, will have the scalp of another 2016 semi-finalist in their sights and Ireland will hope to avoid that and finish an injury-hit campaign on a positive note with victory.
For the first time Ireland coach Peter Malone has the luxury of naming a largely unchanged starting XV, having seen five players ruled out after picking up injuries on match day three. He makes only three changes for the second meeting between these nations, with tight-head prop Charlie Connolly, second-row Oisin Dowling and inside centre David McCarthy given starting spots.
Georgia have kept their changes to a minimum with only four in total, one of which is a positional switch with Beka Saghinadze, a try-scorer against Argentina, moving from the second row to blindside flanker with his spot taken by Lasha Jaiani. Guram Papidze also starts at tight-head with Saba Svimonishvili preferred on the right wing.
“The Georgians are going to be big and powerful, so the players know that they're going to have to front up and be ready for that battle,” said Malone. “There's set to be a good crowd at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium tomorrow and Georgian fans are a passionate bunch, so it should make for a great atmosphere and hopefully a great match.”
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: SAMOA V ARGENTINA
Samoa have twice found themselves starring relegation to the World Rugby U20 Trophy in the face and on both occasions have slipped to defeat, including painfully two years ago when a long-range penalty attempt with the final kick fell agonisingly short against Italy. They bounced back each time at the first attempt, but will hope the return of their talisman Hunter Paisami at outside centre and winger Losi Filipo after his suspension will inspire them to victory.
Los Pumitas, by contrast, have never been in this position where their survival in the premier international age-grade competition was at stake and they will need to find a way to bounce back from three successive defeats, including one last time out to hosts Georgia when their indiscipline was punished by the boot of Junior Lelos' scrum-half Gela Aprasidze.
Argentina have made a number of changes to their forward pack, the most significant being the return of blindside flanker Bautista Stavile after he sat out the Georgia defeat through injury. There is also one change in the backline with Felipe Freyre, who only joined the squad earlier this week as an injury replacement, given the start at outside centre.
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