By beating South Africa 40-21 in the semi final of the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009, England set up a repeat of last year’s final against New Zealand as the top two seeds, fittingly, meet on the biggest stage of all for Under 20 players.
The repeat of the 2008 final means that Mark Mapletoft and his players, ecstatic after reaching a second successive title decider, will get the chance to seek a reversal of the result which the now head coach says was a “humbling” experience.
The 38-3 defeat in the inaugural tournament in Wales provides England with ample motivation and Mapletoft, who will pit his wits against the Baby Blacks again, having been assistant coach last year, also has a side chomping at the bit to go one better on Sunday at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo.
“We have had a good couple of days, plenty of rest and recovery and starting to look forward to New Zealand. The boys are still buoyant and it is a real credit to the lads to come together in Japan and I can’t praise them enough in that respect, but they are desperate to do well on Sunday and desperate to go one better than last year’s team,” said Mapletoft.
“We didn’t do ourselves justice last year. New Zealand were fantastic and they proved that as we couldn’t get anywhere near them. We turned up nervous and played nervous. The only time we started to play was when the game was lost in the last 20 minutes. But they are different sides this year, except for a few guys, and there are different strengths.”
England do, however, have a number of reasons to be confident going into Sunday’s final. Not only was Mapletoft involved last year, so too were seven players who have formed the nucleus of this 2009 squad.
“They have been really good. Part of our selection process over the last two or three seasons has always been to have a nucleus of older lads to keep reinforcing the messages, the environment and what is expected,” explained the 37-year-old.
“With the guys like Luke (Eves), Rob (Miller), Ben (Youngs), Courtney (Lawes), James Clark and Calum (Clark) it has been easy to do that in a seamless transition. Despite the lack of continuity we have had in selection part of the fact that those guys have been around for two years has helped us in that process.”
Add to this the tournament’s leading point scorer Tom Homer, with 57 - including the most conversions (15) and penalties (9 – joint with Matthew Jarvis of Wales) - and not only do England have experience in spades, they have a full back who has great positioning and nerves of steel according to his coach.
“Tom has had a great tournament. He was considered a centre at the start of the season and he has come a long way, mainly on the back of playing for his club. He hasn’t been overplayed and we have been really impressed with his positional play at full back, which is one of the hardest things to learn in that position,” added the former England fly half.
“Very few balls hit the floor, and when people put chips in behind he always seem to be there and he is nerveless in front of goal and I hope he can continue that through onto Sunday afternoon.”
Forwards v backs?
Despite Homer being the leading point scorer, the match is being billed as the best forwards (England) against the best backs (New Zealand) in the Championship - although try telling the England backline and Baby Blacks' forwards this.
“The Kiwi pack are always solid and our backs know they can't do anything without decent ball. We are under no illusions their pack will be tidy and we know what their backs have got to offer - I have always been a fan of Zac’s (Guildford), watching him play for the Hurricanes. He is a fantastic player and it looks like he has matured over the last 12 months,” admitted Mapletoft.
“I have been really impressed with the full back, their centres and with their captain at 10 they are pretty good group, really ambitious and like to play rugby which I like to see, but we know their pack will be no mean threat in the tight.
“But we feel we have a good side and we have been able to rotate our players in the pool stages so everybody is relatively fresh and they will want to go out and prove to themselves more than anything.
“But I don’t think it is a question of looking to avenge last year’s defeat, it was a pretty humbling experience for everyone involved losing 38-3 in a final but it is not about that, it is about the guys realising just how good they can be and what opportunities exist for them on the world stage as England players.”
The forwards for England have been instrumental in their two crucial matches so far, and while Mapletoft is aware no team can unleash their backs without a platform, he has a pack that averages 6ft 4in in height at his disposal and includes the only forward to be nominated for the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2009 award in Carl Fearns, who has controlled the pack from number 8 and contributed four tries.
“Carl has had a fantastic four games. He has had a torrid two years since he captained the Under 18s in 2007 with knee injuries. Up until this tournament he played half a game. He is a great character, great leader that leads by example and players follow him.
“To be able to have someone like him around assisting people in the key decision making positions is critical. He works hard, and a player like that, with any accolades coming their way is well deserved. I hope he recognises what a special nomination that is and proves why he has been one of the four nominated players on Sunday.”
** Watch New Zealand take on England in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 Final live and on-demand for free on Sunday 21 June. The final kicks off at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo at 15:00 local time after the third place play-off between Australia and South Africa. **
Click here for more details >>
** You can also watch on-demand the two semi finals - New Zealand v Australia and England v South Africa **
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