Luke Whitelock holds aloft the trophy as New Zealand celebrate

New Zealand remain the only country to lift the distinctive trophy after securing a fourth successive title, but in reality they have never come so close to tasting defeat on the Junior World Championship stage as they did against England in the final at the Stadio Plebiscito in the Italian city of Padova in late June.

The final lived up to its hype and produced a titanic battle for the title, unlike 12 months ago when New Zealand had blitzed Australia with a sublime display of rugby to win 62-17 in Argentina. This time there would be no runaway win, the capacity crowd treated instead to an “intriguing and absolutely riveting” encounter in the words of commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith.

England have twice been on the end of heavy final losses to New Zealand, 38-3 in 2008 and 44-28 a year later, and knew they couldn’t allow their opponents to get up a head of steam or they could well suffer the same fate as Australia or even Wales, who were swept aside 92-0 in the pool stages.

The mood in the England camp was buoyant, the feeling that this was not – unlike in previous years – an invincible New Zealand outfit. Argentina had showed their frailties, particularly at scrum time, in their Pool A encounter and Australia followed suit in the semi-finals, even if the scoreboard would suggest two comfortable wins for New Zealand.

England came out in determined mood, accepting the challenge of the New Zealand haka and putting the champions under intense pressure, barely allowing them out of their own half in the opening 15 minutes and getting their reward when Christian Wade raced down the touchline to open the scoring. 

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They were making all the running and creating plenty of opportunities, but were unable to turn their domination into points, unlike New Zealand who recovered to lead 20-10 at half-time thanks to tries by Charles Piutau and prop Ben Tameifuna.

However, if New Zealand, with Gareth Anscombe pulling the strings at fly-half, harboured thoughts of running away with it England had other ideas, cutting the deficit to just a single point with Henry Thomas and Wade tries.

England would have been ahead going into the last 10 minutes had TJ Perenara not somehow got his arm under the ball to deny Matt Kvesic a try, but after Anscombe kicked a penalty and lively full-back Beauden Barrett touched down to seal the 33-22 win – their 20th consecutive victory in JWC history – it was the English left ruing missed opportunities.

“The Poms rated themselves and fairly so; they’re a bloody good side and they pushed us right to the edge there, but we dug deep and held on and to hold on in those type of conditions really meant a lot to us,” admitted Anscombe, Man of the Match and the son of coach Mark and whose 100% record with the boot ultimately proved the difference on the scoreboard with both sides scoring three tries.

It was England’s first defeat under coach Rob Hunter and a bitter pill for the Six Nations Grand Slam winners to swallow, the fact they had come closer to beating New Zealand than anyone in JWC history no comfort as they watched Luke Whitelock follow in the footsteps of Chris Smith, Aaron Cruden and Tyler Bleyendaal by lifting the trophy.


Arno Botha scored a hat-trick against Fiji, but fifth wasn't the place South Africa had wanted

There was some consolation for Wade in that he finished as the joint leading try-scorer with South Africa captain Arno Botha on seven, the latter scoring a hat-trick in a 104-17 defeat of Fiji in the fifth place play-off.

It was not the placing South Africa had wanted, but after missing out on the semi-finals for the first time they were a side on a mission, determined to show their potential and 25 tries in two play-off matches went some way to doing that.

Fiji still had plenty to smile about with sixth their best ever finish in the tournament’s four-year history. France would also leave Italy with their best ever finish of fourth, having become the sixth different nation to play in the semi-finals after beating Australia 31-25 in an exciting tussle to top Pool B.

That encounter showcased France at their mercurial best, full of attacking flair and solid defence with the ferocity and panache that had been missing as they stuttered past Fiji and Tonga. The defeat ultimately didn’t prove costly for Australia as they joined France in the semi-finals as the best runner-up across the pools, edging South Africa on point difference after they fell 26-20 to England in another titanic battle.

South Africa threw everything but the kitchen sink at England in the dying minutes in search of a try that would have kept their title hopes alive, but came up short thanks to some impressive last ditch tackles. Their absence, though, did set up two intriguing intra-hemisphere semi-finals with New Zealand battling past Australia after England, inspired by the tournament’s youngest player George Ford, overcame France 33-18. 

Australia would avenge their earlier loss to France in the third place play-off, not making the same mistake of slow-starting twice with captain Colby Faingaa – the younger brother of Wallabies Saia and Anthony – once again a livewire in defence and attack in a 30-17 win under a blazing Padova sun.


Italy's players celebrate the victory over Tonga which confirmed their place at JWC 2012 

The other matches on the final day yielded victories for Wales, Argentina and Italy, the latter celebrated as if it was the title the Azzurrini had won, rather than the 11th place play-off against Tonga 34-22, with coach Andrea Cavinato thrown into the air by his jubilant players.

Italy had found their return to the Junior World Championship hard, the Junior World Rugby Trophy 2010 winners losing to New Zealand, Wales and Argentina (twice) before finally discovering the scoring touch against Tonga to the delight of the Stadio Mario Battaglini crowd.

For Wales, the 38-24 victory over Ireland to match their seventh place finish of 2010 was a positive note in a campaign of contrasting fortunes, the 92-0 mauling by New Zealand – the biggest margin of defeat by any side in Welsh rugby history – a dark day and the 34-20 loss to Fiji on day four did little to stem the gloom. Although on the losing side, Ireland wing Andrew Conway touched down for his 10th try across two Junior World Championships, equalling the all-time record of All Black Zac Guildford.

The tournament, though, is about more than just unearthing the next generation of world stars and will certainly have left its mark on the rugby communities in the Veneto region of Italy with fans attending matches in their tens of thousands across the three venues in Padova, Rovigo and Treviso and creating an atmosphere to savour with their enthusiasm for the exciting, attacking rugby on show.
 
IRB JUNIOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 2011 RESULTS

POOL A
Argentina 8-34 Wales
Italy 7-64 New Zealand
New Zealand 92-0 Wales
Italy 3-27 Argentina
Italy 6-56 Wales
Argentina 15-48 New Zealand

POOL B
Australia 54-7 Tonga
France 24-12 Fiji
Australia 50-25 Fiji
France 27-14 Tonga
Fiji 36-18 Tonga
Australia 25-31 France

POOL C
England 33-25 Ireland
South Africa 33-0 Scotland
England 39-18 Scotland
Ireland 26-42 South Africa
England 26-20 South Africa
Ireland 30-13 Scotland

PLAY-OFFS
Scotland 30-11 Tonga
Argentina 12-8
Wales 20-34 Fiji
South Africa 57-15 Ireland

SEMI-FINALS
England 33-18 France
New Zealand 37-7 Australia

PLAY-OFFS
Tonga 22-34 Italy
Scotland 14-15 Argentina
Wales 38-24 Ireland
Fiji 17-104 South Africa
France 17-30 Australia

FINAL
England 22-33 New Zealand

FINAL STANDINGS
1 New Zealand
2 England
3 Australia
4 France
5 South Africa
6 Fiji
7 Wales
8 Ireland
9 Argentina
10 Scotland
11 Italy
12 Tonga (Relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012)