For some, the dreams of winning the prestigious IRB Junior World Championship title have already gone for another year, but for New Zealand, Australia, England, France and South Africa in particular, that target is still within touching distance as the pool stages draw to a tense conclusion on Saturday.
This quintet are all unbeaten after the opening two rounds, France the only team not to have collected two bonus point wins, making victory over Australia in their Pool B decider even more important because a loss, without any bonus points, will definitely end their hopes of a first ever semi final berth.
Three-time defending champions New Zealand, Australia and South Africa currently top their respective pools, with England behind the Baby Boks on point differential and these four will be hoping to lock out the semi final places just as they did a year ago in Argentina.
South Africa then qualified as the best runner up after losing an enthralling Pool C decider with Australia 42-35, a 10-try feast of some of the best rugby played on this Under 20 stage. This time they will hope to beat England and top Pool C, thereby likely avoiding a semi final with the dominant Baby Blacks.
The Baby Boks ran out 27-22 winners when the sides last met in the third-place play-off in 2010 and coach Dawie Theron knows it will need an 80-minute performance from his players if they are to come out on top again, this time at the Stadio Plebiscito in Padova.
VIDEO: South Africa aim target semi finals in Italy
Theron's side is boosted by Jaco Taute's arrival as replacement for the injured Craig Barry. The Super Rugby regular comes straight in at full back to bolster a backline brimming with pace and playing behind a strong pack, including a dangerous back three of Nizaam Carr, Siyamthanda Kolisi and captain Arno Botha.
“We are playing England for the top honours in our pool, so there’s naturally going to be plenty of tension and excitement building up to this fixture, which is great,” said Theron. “We’ve managed to achieve maximum points without playing too much rugby during our matches against Ireland and Scotland.
“England have got skilful players across the park and will test us for 80 minutes. We are going to have to be sharp in our execution and our discipline will have to be right up there. We’ve defended well by only leaking two tries, and our structures will have to once again be up for the challenge of containing a team who have not been afraid to play an expansive game.
“We pretty much expect them to continue that trend on Saturday, which is why we’ll have to defend well, and execute our own opportunities which come our way. It’s a guaranteed semi final ticket for the winners, so we hope to be the successful team.”
England have perhaps surprisingly elected to drop wing Christian Wade, their hat-trick hero against Scotland, to the bench, but more interesting is the first opportunity to see exciting prospects George Ford and Owen Farrell line up at fly half and inside centre respectively.
Best yet to come
France, like South Africa, have never reached a JWC final before and have not shown their real hand yet after stuttering past both Fiji (24-12) and Tonga (27-14), needing a late try by Pierre Gayraud to finally see off the latter on Tuesday.
"Our target can still be reached,” insisted manager Philippe Sella. “I realise that, at a global level, there are three teams that dominate this sport: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. We are one point behind them [Australia] but the first target was to win the first two matches, and the second target was to score as much as possible. We have almost achieved them both.
“We need another victory to be sure that we’ll go on in this Championship. I think we can do that. Australia managed to impose its own play in their first two matches. We haven’t but I am hoping this will happen against them. It’s going to be the hardest match.”
Australia, the only side other than New Zealand whose try tally is in double figures at JWC 2011, have hit half centuries against both Fiji and Tonga and welcome back captain Colby Faingaa, number 8 Ed Quirk, towering second row Greg Peterson and scrum half Matt Lucas for the French challenge.
New Zealand, though, are the side everyone hopes to avoid in the semi finals and understandably so, the Baby Blacks having demolished Wales 92-0 last time out to take their tally to 156 points for and seven against, scoring 23 tries in the process and having their line breached only once.
VIDEO: New Zealand run riot in Italy
Argentina are the next team to face the men in black, who will be seeking an 18th consecutive victory in JWC history and another top seeding for the semi finals, where their place is already assured, with the Pumitas unable to catch them even with an upset win and Wales already swept aside.
This has allowed coach Mark Anscombe to rest some of his key players, with captain Luke Whitelock and star fly half Gareth Anscombe, the leading point scorer, on the bench among a vastly changed line-up. Full back Beauden Barrett and centre Rhys Llewellyn are two of a only handful of players retained from the Welsh win.
Wales, technically, can still reach the semi finals but in reality the biggest margin of defeat by any national side in Welsh rugby history has put them at such a disadvantage, with a far inferior point differential than any of the other contenders, that the play-offs for fifth to eighth are more likely.
It would take a winning margin of 67 points over tournament hosts Italy in Treviso simply to bring them back to a positive point differential and then they would be left relying on the losers of the Australia-France and England-South Africa matches to suffer heavy defeats to potentially bring them into the equation.
"We were clearly blown apart by a New Zealand team that capitalised on our every mistake on Tuesday," admitted coach Richard Webster. "However, we have to try and forget about the New Zealand loss for now, because with a four-day turnaround between each match, there is no time to dwell on it.
"We showed we are not a bad team with our opening win over Argentina, and we are determined to show that again tomorrow. Wales finished seventh in this competition last season, and sixth the year before. With three good performances and results, we can better that finish, which is what we are focused on doing now."
Wales ran out 46-15 winners when the sides met in Cosenza in the Under 20 Six Nations, despite playing most of the match with 14 men, and welcome back Matthew Morgan - who starred with 21 points in that win - and captain Macauley Cook to face the Azzurrini again.
"We beat Italy comfortably in the Six Nations with 14 men, but as hosts who have not yet won a game in this tournament, they will be determined to put in a good performance against us in front of a big home crowd. It is down to us to stick to our game plan and come away with the spoils."
For the likes of Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Fiji and Tonga, who are yet to taste victory at JWC 2011, the final day of pool action takes on added significance, with all desperate to avoid being consigned to the play-offs for ninth to 12th place and the threat of relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy for 2012.
The spectators at the Stadio Mario Battaglini in Rovigo, therefore, can expect two passionate encounters between sides with long rivalries as Fiji take on Tonga in Pool B at 18:10 local time, before Scotland tackle Ireland in Pool C.
Fiji and Tonga have not met on this stage since the inaugural tournament in 2008 - when Tonga won 28-20 - and Pacific Island pride will be at stake in what is sure to be a physical encounter, with the Fijians desperate for a win if they are to have a chance of matching their eighth-place finish of 2010.
Scotland and Ireland can both consider themselves unlucky not to have tasted victory so far, the Irish losing to a late England try on day one and a much-improved Scottish side from their Six Nations wooden spoon also having caused problems for the Auld Enemy.
"We have turned our attention to a Scotland team that is much improved from the Six Nations," explained Ireland coach Mike Ruddock. "They played very well against England and play a very expansive off-loading game. We will have to be at our best to beat them and that is our goal."
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