Round Two of the 2016 World Rugby U20s at the AJ Bell Stadium followed a little more closely to the script than Round One writes Lewis Hughes, although a statement victory in the day’s final game from Argentina will have raised more than a few eyebrows around opposition camps.
Australia 38 – 10 Italy
Despite a nervy, error-strewn first half that saw Italy capitalise on the biblical weather buffeting the AJ Bell Stadium to lead 10-7 at half-time, Australia rallied with 31 unanswered second half points to get their World Rugby U20s campaign back on track with a bonus point, 38-10 victory.
Guided by a flawless performance from fly-half Mack Mason who successfully kicked all six of his attempts at goal and ran in his side’s fifth try of the afternoon, the Wallabies put aside Tuesday’s disappointing result against Scotland to reassert their ambitions of progressing to the knockout rounds with a hard-fought but ultimately deserved victory against a valiant, but outclassed Italian side.
It was, however, the Azzuri who had the run of things in the first forty minutes. Aided by an incessant downpour of rain that stymied Australia’s preferred gameplan of fast-paced, attacking rugby, the Italians struck first with a Leonardo Mantelli penalty on ten minutes.
And the Wallabies’ problems were compounded further on 27 minutes. With the Italian scrum – led by the outstanding Daniele Rimpelli – preventing the Australian forward pack amassing any momentum, the Italians then struck with a superb counter-attacking move for the contest’s first try.
A hanging up-and-under spilled in the air by Australian fullback Jack Maddocks was gratefully received by Samuele Ortis who immediately found a streaking Marco Zanon on his shoulder to pierce the Australian defence. In turn, Zanon, having been tackled by Simon Kennewell metres from the line, had the wherewithal to produce a sublime pop pass from the ground to fullback Matteo Minozzi who scrambled over and completed an astonishing sucker-punch. Mantelli’s touchline conversion took the Italian lead to 10 points.
That was to be the high point of the Italians’ afternoon however. A stunned but resolute Australia responded minutes later with a well worked period of sustained pressure that culminated with Simon Kennewell crashing over in the corner. Mason added the extras to narrow the gap to three points at the interval.
And buoyed by Kennewell’s late score, the Australian onslaught began in earnest after the break with their superior depth and physicality off the bench especially telling.
Mason immediately tied the game up at 10 apiece two minutes into the second half following an Italian breakdown infringement before the outstanding Lukhan Lealaiaulol-Tui – who, alongside Robert Leota, produced a devastating cameo off the bench – put the finishing touch to more concentrated buildup play with a powerful drive over the line to give Australia their first lead of the game in the fifty-third minute.
Said lead was extended eight minutes later when Australia, whose domination of possession was now producing an observable effect on a tiring Italian defence, spread the ball wide, kicked beyond the cover and capitalised on a bundled collection on the ground which allowed winger Liam Jurd the simplest of walkover tries. Mason converted once again to extended the lead to 24-10.
With Australia now also in control of the scrummaging battle following comprehensive changes to both packs, the bonus point was secured with a barnstorming run of 30 metres from prop Shambeckler Vui who ran over three Italian defenders to score under the posts. Mason converted and then rounded of the rout with a try of his own following a line break and inside ball from Liam McNamara.
France 46 – 14 Japan
Inspired by stalwart outside centre Damien Penaud, France, akin to Australia earlier in the afternoon, kick-started their own tournament campaign with an abrasive, but ultimately comfortable bonus-point victory over Japan, 46-14.
Penaud, who scored one, assisted two, and was the catalyst for a third, shone brightest in a French backline that, despite some initial difficulty, eventually sliced apart a battling Japanese side.
Also akin to Australia’s encounter an hour earlier, it was the presumptive underdogs who struck first. From an early Japanese scrum, No.8 Tevita Tatafu picked up possession and then delivered an excellent delayed pass to winger Ren Tanako who ghosted through the French defence to touch down under the posts. Ataata Moeakiloa’s conversion gave the Brave Blossoms a 7-0 lead.
France responded with a powerful, forward-dominated gameplan in an attempt to use the extra weight amongst their front eight to grind down the Japanese; it was a system that almost produced immediate dividends with France held up over the line only minutes after Japan’s opening score.
Whilst not successful that time, France’s continued onus on grunt up front meant a wilting of the Japanese defensive line was inevitable, and after an Anthony Belleau penalty had reduced the deficit to 7-3, hooker Peato Mauvaka rolled off the back of another surging French maul to cross the whitewash and give the French a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Belleau converted to make it 10-7 on 23 minutes.
And only moments later, an opportunistic French approach struck gold again; this time scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud went underneath the posts following a midfield break built off of yet another maul. Belleau’s conversion pushed the gap to 10 points at the half.
The difference in class between the two sides was made evident immediately after the halftime interval. Whilst Japan had laboured to find another chink in the French defensive line with increasingly progressive attacking strategies to little effect at the end of the first half, France had no problem replying in kind with more noticeable results once play restarted; after the ball was moved wide, the talismanic Penaud broke a first tackle, cut inside, fended off the challenge of another tackler, then rode a third over the line to produce the type of wonderful individual effort the Japanese so desperately needed.
The Cherry Blossoms were not to roll over without continued resistance however; on 54 minutes, after an attacking maul was brought down, the industrious Tatafu broke down the nearside to the French’s surprise and crashed over for Japan’s second side. A pinpoint touchline conversion from Moeakiola to bring the scoreline back to 22-14 suddenly threatened the comfortable victory most had assumed after Penaud’s earlier score.
But the mini-fightback was to be quelled definitively with an immediate French response. From the ensuing kickoff, replacement lock Florian Verhaeghe won the ball clean in the air and broke clear, found Alexandre Roumat on his shoulder who in turn fed newcomer Antoine Dupont to sprint clear and dive over for the bonus-point try.
Despite the valiant efforts of the Japanese, it was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and after the French wound down the clock and stymied further Japan resistance they struck thrice in the last ten minutes to deliver a comprehensive result. With Penaud at the heart of things on both occasions, first as the playmaker in the line to deliver the pass out wide for Alexandre Nicoue to collect, and later as the man to make the initial line break for both Antoine Dupont and Romain Buros’ tries (Dupont’s second), France finished the game in clinical fashion, running out 41-14 winners.
Those late scores to bolster the French point differential could yet prove to be important, as despite the commanding result, France stay third in Pool C due to the outcome of the day’s final fixture.
Argentina 19 – 13 South Africa
This clash was never going to be the one-sided romp that had characterised the day’s prior two games.
It was very much the game you would expect from two sides whose success in recent years has been built upon a powerful base of forwards; tight, combative and ultimately determined by a single score.
In the end it was the yellow cards shown to South Africa scrum-half James Hall and flanker Ernst Van Rhyn that proved more decisive in determining the winning score than an individual piece of skill or slick passing move.
With Hall in the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle, the ensuing penalty from Argentina fly-half Domingo Miotti and a well-worked Tomas Malanos try would ultimately come to separate the sides in a bruising encounter to close out Round Two at the AJ Bell.
An abrasive first-half was marked by little in the way of opportunities for either side, the only points in the opening thirty-nine minutes coming from two penalties apiece for opposing fly-halves Curwin Bosch and Domingo Miotti – interspersed by a succession of missed drop goal and penalty attempts.
But with Hall taking a ten-minute respite following an accidental, but dangerous tackle on Pumas’ hooker Gaspar Baldunciel, Argentina first levelled the scores, then grabbed a go-ahead seven-pointer. From an attacking lineout, MOTM Franco Molina rolled off the back of the forming maul, embraced contact and off-loaded to a charging Malanos who scampered under the posts. Miotti converted to give Argentina a 13-6 half-time lead.
With the game balanced on a knife edge, both sides had golden chances within minutes of each other. First Los Pumas wasted a glorious break from the combined efforts of Miotti and Molina after the ball was spilled with the goal-line gaping before the Baby Boks had a try of their own chalked off – TMO Geoff Warren adjudging South Africa winger Mosolwa Mafuma to have not grounded the ball following the charge down of an Argentine kick that span back into the defending side’s goal area. Both sides compounded their wastefulness with further missed attempts at goal, one each for Miotti and Bosch.
Nevertheless, there was still time aplenty for additional drama and the stage was set for a nail-biting finale – the first of the day – on 63 minutes. After Miotii had atoned for his earlier misses with a penalty to stretch the Argentine lead to 19-6, the trademark bulldozing power of the Springboks was unleashed via a rolling maul deep in the Argentine 22; the lineout secured, the South Africans poured in, and despite the best efforts of the opposition, Prop Franco Van Den Berg eventually crashed over. Bosch added the extras to bring South Africa back to within one score.
However the indiscipline that plagued the South Africans all game would ultimately determine the Springboks’ fate. Sustained Argentine possession resulted in flanker Van Rhyn being sin-binned in his enthusiasm to recover the ball from a ruck and having been reduced to a numerical disadvantage for a second time, South Africa were unable to overturn a composed Pumas side despite a further missed attempt at goal from Miotti.
Argentina’s historic win – their first ever at this level over South Africa – leaves them as favourites to top Pool C following two impressive victories over France and the Springboks. However with South Africa picking up a consolatory bonus point and France’s bonus-point win, all three sides remain in contention for the Pool’s two spots in the forthcoming knockout rounds.
Mack Mason - As a calm and composed presence at the heart of the Australian side on Saturday, Mason impressed by doing all the simple things, well.
For players like Mason who enjoy an abundance of talent around them, sometimes the most effective performances are those which see the side’s pivot control play and ensure the players alongside him see plenty of ball and opportunity.
Mason filled this role perfectly against Italy, taking the initiative when necessary – such as with his try which illustrated his crafty footwork and deceptive pace – but mostly by being content to dictate play and create opportunities for his elusive wingers or power ball-carries, and also successfully kick every goal he attempted.
Damien Penaud - Blessed with both impressive physicality to exploit the slightest gaps in defence and the creative awareness to construct such gaps for his teammates, Penaud’s all-round ability was on full display against Japan.
A genuine difference maker in the French midfield, Penaud was at the centre of everything the French did amongst their backline – two try assists and a touchdown himself - and his match-winning prowess will only grow with more performances like Saturday’s.
Santiago Mare - A creative force in an in-game scenario starkly different to that of the players mentioned above, Mare’s excellence on Saturday should not be discounted due to his lack of scoreboard influence.
With chances at a premium against a robust South African defence, Mare was one of only a handful of players (on either side) to show the creative instincts necessary to produce the elusive game-winning moment.
At ease drifting across and through the Springbok defence due to his lighting pace, and the incisive centre of the Argentine counter-attack, Mare was a key driving force behind the Pumas’ attack for the entire 80 minutes and served as an invaluable contributor to a historic victory, even if that contribution isn’t the most easily observable when reviewing the stat sheet.
Team of the Day
Loosehead Prop: Daniele Rimpelli (Italy)
Hooker: Gaspar Baldunciel (Argentina)
Tighthead Prop: Emerick Setiano (France)
Lock: Franco Molina (Argentina)
Lock: Lukhan Lealaiaulolo-Tui (Australia)
Blindside Flanker: Lorenzo Masselli (Italy)
Openside Flanker: Zain Davids (South Africa)
Number Eight: Robert Leota (Australia)
Scrum-half: Antoine Dupont (France)
Fly-half: Mack Mason (Australia)
Winger: Santiago Mare (Argentina)
Inside Centre: Marco Zanon (Italy)
Outside Centre: Damien Penaud (France)
Winger: Alexandre Nicoue (France)
Fullback: Curwin Bosch (South Africa)