Day three of the 2016 World Rugby U20 Championship at the AJ Bell Stadium saw both Argentina and England confirm their places in the tournament semi-finals writes Lewis Hughes.
However a narrow victory for New Zealand over Wales was ultimately not enough to secure the All Blacks’ progression into the next round, with wins across the city for Ireland and South Africa completing the top-four seeding for Monday’s knockout games.
Argentina 39 - 20 Japan
Argentina survived a very early scare – conceding two tries within the first five minutes – to record a comfortable 39-20 victory over Japan and secure their place in the World Rugby U20 semi-finals.
A 24-point second half saw Argentina, who look like genuine championship contenders, overwhelmed a valiant Japanese side that will now compete to avoid relegation to the U20 Trophy competition in the 9th-12th place play-offs.
Argentina’s eventual dominance stemmed from their, at times unplayable, ball-handling amongst the backs which repeatedly carved open an outclassed Japanese defence.
But it was Japan who made the brighter start, stunning the Pumas and the sizeable AJ Bell crowd with two scores in the game’s opening five minutes.
First, early Japanese pressure straight from the opening kickoff was rewarded when fly-half Ataala Moeakiola slipped between Domingo Miotti and Teo Castiglioni to barrel over from in-close.
Then, immediately after play restarted, the ball squirted out from an Argentine-controlled ruck on halfway into the grateful hands of Japanese Number 8 Tevita Tatafu who showed an impressive turn of speed to sprint clear and touch down in the corner. Moeakiola missed both conversions to limit the damage to 10-0.
Argentina, who entered Wednesday’s action unbeaten following seminal wins over France and South Africa, after a number of early passages of wasteful play, eventually found their foothold in the game on 17 minutes when winger Jose Burros Sosa went over in the corner following a superb linebreak by loosehead Ruben Ricco and a grubber through from fly-half Miotti. Miotti missed the extras to keep the deficit at five.
Despite the superb breakdown efforts of the omnipresent Tatafu, Argentina assumed the lead for the first time seven minutes later when Sosa grabbed the second of his brace. From an Argentina scrum in Japan’s half, a well-worked backs move put outside centre Juan Cruz Mallia into space who in turn fed Sosa for his second touchdown in the corner. Miotti kicked the first successful conversion of the day to make it 12-10 before Miotti and Moeakiola traded penalty efforts to give the Pumas a slender 15-13 advantage.
However, the second forty was where Argentina’s superiority in all areas rapidly became apparent.
On 42 minutes, lock Marcos Kramer crashed over from close range following patient build-up to extend the lead to nine points and despite some stubborn Japanese resistance in the immediate aftermath, the deficit grew further still when substitute Mariano Romanini took an inside ball from Miotti at pace and likewise collapsed over the whitewash ten minutes later to make it 29-13.
Japan’s dogged determination to keep the game competitive was apparent in Tatafu’s second try of the afternoon; the Tongan-born backrower the beneficiary of a well-oiled rolling maul that brought the Brave Blossoms back to within nine points, 29-20.
But the Pumas responded immediately in ruthless fashion to crush any hopes of an unlikely comeback, captain Mallia cutting inside the Japanese defence following another incisive backline move to go in under the posts. Miotti’s conversion and a late penalty from Martin Elias rounded off an impressive 39-point performance from Argentina, whose travelling supporters celebrated jubilantly together with the players at the final whistle having sealed a matchup with Ireland in the first of Monday's semi-finals.
New Zealand 18 - 17 Wales
A 79th minute penalty from Jordie Barrett cruelly denied Wales a deserved victory as New Zealand emerged triumphant 18-17 in a tight, attritional battle in the second game at the AJ Bell.
The All Blacks’ narrow victory was not enough however to prevent their streak of reaching every U20 semi-final since the tournament’s inception in 2008 being broken; South Africa’s 40-31 bonus-point victory over France earned the Springboks the fourth semi-final spot by virtue of finishing as the best pool runners up.
Led by a dominant scrum and the tactical brilliance of fly-half Daniel Jones, Wales had led from the opening minute to the 79th before Tom Williams’ knock-on in the air following Jordie Barrett’s cross-field kick was adjudged to have been intentional resulting in Barrett’s game-winning strike (and Williams’ sin-binning).
It was an uncharacteristically out-of-sorts performance from the Baby Blacks who lacked the trademark cutting edge of New Zealand rugby, save for fullback Shaun Stevenson who shone throughout.
Instead it was Wales who dominated the early exchanges, particularly at the scrum, which won them the game’s first penalty in the opening, duly converted by Daniel Jones from the half-way line.
And the Welsh ascendancy at the scrum compounded the Kiwi’s problems further on eight minutes; a powerful shove from the forward pack creating the platform for Jones to punch through a grubber kick that was touched down by outside centre Joe Thomas to make it 8-0.
Whatever the cause of the All Blacks’ collective mental distraction, it reared its head at the resulting restart, TJ Va’a guilty of kicking out on the full to give Wales another scrum on halfway with the exact same outcome – a Welsh penalty and another three points for the impressive Jones.
New Zealand finally cut into the growing deficit with a penalty of their own from Jordie Barrett to bring the scoreline to 11-3 on 18 minutes, but with neither side able to conjure up much in the way of attacking creativity, a stop-start, territorial based game had to wait another fifteen minutes for its next score – another Jones penalty to restore the Dragons’ 11 point lead.
But the All Blacks were to have the final say of the half. After Wales lock Seb Davies was sin-binned, scrum-half Sam Nock struck with a cutting inside run from the base of the scrum to slash the Welsh lead to 14-10 as the half-time whistle blew.
Unfortunately, the second half was to proceed much like the first with neither side able to establish a firm base of control. Jordie Barrett joining Davies in the sin-bin on 47 minutes with Jones subsequently restoring the Welsh lead to seven points.
But the ever-dangerous Shaun Stevenson was to produce probably the single moment of genuine quality throughout the second forty minutes.
Following a prolonged spell of New Zealand pressure that was matched inch-to-inch by some heroic Welsh defence, Stevenson, despite the narrow space he was allowed only metres away from the tryline, was able to dance around three Welsh defenders and stretch over the line to bring the Kiwis back to within two points.
Stevenson’s score was to ultimately prove decisive. With time winding down and neither side having been able to add to their total in the game’s final twenty minutes, Barrett launched a hopeful cross-field kick that was batted away by winger Tom Williams only for play to be called back with Williams found guilty - somewhat harshly – of a deliberate knock-on.
Barrett stepped up and coolly slotted the game-deciding penalty to break Welsh hearts and hand New Zealand a 18-17 triumph that, whilst impressive in its resilience, was ultimately not enough to see the All Blacks progress to the semi-finals.
England 17 - 13 Australia
Like its predecessor, Wednesday’s final game certainly wasn’t one for the ages.
But England won’t mind one bit.
England scored eleven unanswered points and held Australia to a scoreless second half to finish the pool stages unbeaten with a 17-13 win and secure the #1 seed for the tournament’s semi-finals.
A Joe Marchant try and four penalties from Harry Mallinder were ultimately enough as the Red Rose overcame a 13-6 half-time deficit to make it a double English victory over their commonwealth rivals following the senior team’s heroics in Brisbane last weekend.
With the win England finish atop Pool A and will face South Africa in the tournament’s next round following the Springboks’ 40-31 win over France to grab the final semi-final spot as the best pool runners up.
Yet it was Australia who got off to an ideal start; from the opening kick-off the Wallabies regained possession and immediately moved the ball wide where, following a super line break from fly-half Mack Mason, the ball found its way to fullback Jack Maddocks on the wing who cut inside Matt Gallagher and Darren Atkins to touch down. Mason added the extras for an early 7-0 lead.
England responded instantly with Mallinder’s first penalty to trim the gap to 7-3 before the game disappointingly lost its traction – the clash between such famed rivals rapidly disintegrated into a scrum-fest with repeated exchanges of post-whistle arguing and shoving that killed all semblance of momentum for either side.
It took until the 27th minute for the scoreboard to tick over again, a Mack Mason penalty restoring Australia’s seven-point lead, before Mallinder replied in kind with his second attempt at goal. Mason struck again shortly before half-time to give the Wallabies a 13-6 lead at the interval and mercifully bring to an end a dour half of rugby that saw try-scoring chances for both sides at an absolute premium.
Fortunately for the 7,012 in attendance at the AJ Bell, England came out for the second half completely reinvigorated and finally began to attempt to play ambitious rugby in response to a Wallabies team that looked more than happy to kill the game off.
With Northampton fly-half Harry Mallinder playing a prominent role in the England midfield, England finally gave their supporters something to cheer for on 52 minutes. After a sustained period of pressure that saw England decisively make inroads towards the Australian tryline, Mallinder gathered the ball at pace and threaded through an inch-perfect grubber kick that was touched down by centre Joe Marchant who had blazed a perfect line through the Australian drift defence.
Despite Mallinder’s conversion miss, momentum was finally on England’s side and he made amends on 65 minutes slotting a penalty to give the home side their first lead of the game, 14-13.
With the game remaining a tight and narrow affair, Marchant’s earlier effort rapidly gained greater importance as it became clear this would go down to the wire.
And the victory was all but secured on 73 minutes. With Australia now forced to come out and spread the ball wide in an attempt to amass a winning score, England centre Johnny Williams was able to isolate the Australian ball-carriers as they tried to play it out of their 22 and force a holding-on penalty to give Mallinder a golden opportunity to extend the home lead in front of the posts.
Mallinder obliged to make it 17-13 and despite Australia now exhibiting desperate urgency in their play, the English defence remained resolute and saw out a nail-biting finish to make it three wins out of three as tournament hosts.
Although his inspired performance wasn’t enough to secure victory for the Brave Blossoms against Argentina, Tevita Tatafu can leave Manchester with his head held extremely high.
A wrecking ball in attack, the Tongan-born No.8’s combination of pace and physical strength was on full display on Wednesday, the former made apparent with his blazing counter-attacking try in the game’s fifth minute and the latter in astutely picking his moment to power over at the back of the Japanese rolling maul.
With the ability to deploy both Tatafu and Amanaki Mafi at No.8, the Japanese backrow has a bright future ahead of it.
Against a team as dangerous and skilled as the All Blacks, Wales fly-half Daniel Jones provided a composed and tactically clinical performance that was the driving force behind a Welsh performance that was agonisingly close to a monumental victory.
Across his 68-minute performance, Jones was nearly flawless, slotting all but one of his attempts at goal and repeatedly pinning New Zealand deep in their own half with his kicking from hand, especially in a first half that the Welsh dominated territory-wise.
Although his turn was ultimately in vein, Jones once again proved how healthy the Welsh bloodline at five-eight has become, displaying a maturity and tactical awareness far beyond his 20 years.
In a close, tense clash ultimately decided by the narrowest of margins, New Zealand fullback Shaun Stevenson appeared to be a class above every other player on the field against Wales.
Wednesday’s second game was one desperately crying out for a moment(s) of magic and Stevenson duly obliged; with every carry the rangy back was beating the first man and his quick feet and thinking perpetually found him with the space and time to launch devastating counter-attacks.
The 19-year-old made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs earlier this season, illustrating that his immense talent has been noticed in domestic rugby circles in New Zealand. But with the form Stevenson has shown in this year’s tournament, it won’t be long before he’s gracing the international stage at test level. Stevenson’s is a star in the making.
Team of The Day
Loosehead Prop – Ruben Ricco (Argentina)
Hooker – Dafydd Hughes (Wales)
Tighthead Prop – Dillon Lewis (Wales)
Lock – Marcos Kramer (Argentina)
Lock – Daichi Akiyama (Japan)
Blindside Flanker – Tevita Tatafu (Japan)
Openside Flanker - Luke Jacobson (New Zealand)
Number Eight – Zach Mercer (England)
Scrum-half – Harry Randall (England)
Fly-half – Daniel Jones (Wales)
Winger – Rhun Williams (Wales)
Inside Centre – Doga Maeda (Japan)
Outside Centre - Johnny Williams (England)
Winger – Jose Barros Sosa (Argentina)
Fullback – Shaun Stevenson (New Zealand)