TV commentators Nigel Starmer-Smith and Willie Lose preview Sunday's final between New Zealand and England at the IRB Junior World Championship 2011 in Italy.
Having witnessed England and New Zealand record victories over France and Australia in the Junior World Championship semi finals, Nigel Starmer-Smith and Willie Lose are in total agreement on one thing: Sunday's big match between the two sides in Padova is shaping up as the best final yet at an IRB Junior World Championship.
With plenty of attacking rugby from two evenly matched sides in store, Starmer-Smith believes England's strength in depth, which they have used on their march to the final, could prove decisive.
“What we’ve got to recognise is that it’s a game of 22 players a side, not 15, and the two teams who have gone through to the final have, overall, the greater strength.
"England have looked all the way through this tournament the most likely challenge to New Zealand because they’ve got that all-round strength, they’ve got the experience of players who have been in a Junior World Championship before and who now know what it’s all about and they know the standard they’ve got to reach.
“What they do have, of course, is an outstanding fly half who has been the general in the game and this has been equally true of the successful teams in this competition; they’ve had players who have brought out the best skills of their team, not only through their goal kicking but through their tactical appreciation, and this youngster, 18-year-old George Ford, is a player with a fantastic future.
"But a half back is no good without a pack of forwards in front of him and the likes of Charlie Matthews and the new boy Joe Launchbury have been outstanding in their building up of the momentum of forward domination, which was the case against France.
“England’s back row has been outstanding, with Alex Gray the captain rounding off the triumph with his try at the end of the France match, and Matt Kvesic and Matt Everard alongside him.
"These are the key elements and it’s easy to say they’ve got brilliant attacking backs in the French side, but you’ve got to have the ball winners up front and that is where I think England do stand a strong chance now against a New Zealand side which looks invincible, but were only tested for the first time, and for a while Australia were in it.
“I don’t think England will wilt or be subdued up front in the way that it happened to Australia in the second semi final.”
In the second semi final Lose saw another fly half, Gareth Anscombe, put in another strong performance in New Zealand’s win over Australia but has also been impressed by the resolve shown by England at JWC 2011.
“I’ve seen a different mindset in this England side. They’ve got mobility, they’ve got class in nine and 10, and that was the difference between Australia and New Zealand as well. I just thought TJ Perenara and Gareth Anscombe controlled things.
“It was an arm wrestle in the first 20 minutes and New Zealand knew Australia were coming up all guns blazing.
"They had nothing to lose after being thrashed last year, 63-17, and so they started well but after scoring the first points in the opening 15 minutes they basically then had to defend for the remainder of the game and New Zealand showed their class yet again.
“The platform is set there. I think this is going to be the best final we’ve ever seen because we’ve got two packs that can match each other, we’ve got two quality inside backs and halves and first fives and we’ve got some exciting backs.
"If they’re given space and the conditions are right, this could be one of the best finals and England will certainly go into it with a lot of confidence."
Confidence is one thing, but how does Lose believe Rob Hunter's side can defeat a team that is looking for their fourth consecutive JWC title and to maintain their unbeaten run in the history of the tournament?
Chance your arm
“The way you attack New Zealand is like what Argentina and also Australia have shown.
"Ball in hand, you chance your arm and you work the phases, but you need to get quick ball and you also need to attack the advantage line.
"I think Volavola for Australia stood back in the pocket too much and so allowed the New Zealanders to come to him and therefore they’ve lost all that momentum.
“But if Ford and Cook can control the game as well as they have over the tournament, then I think England are in a very good position because to me, Ford has got everything in a first five.
"He’s got vision and he also can identify where space is and he’ll frustrate the New Zealanders by turning them around, and we saw in the semi final he’s not afraid to chance his arm. He scored a brilliant try.
"If Ford is on song and if the pack give him enough decent ball, then of course they’re capable of beating New Zealand."
The final is a repeat of the 2008 (Wales) and 2009 (Japan) finals, also witnessed by Starmer-Smith, with England looking to avenge 38-3 and 44-28 defeats.
With the two sides evenly matched in the forwards, Starmer-Smith anticipates a closer encounter and the team that does best in the outside channels will win the match.
“New Zealand in the past have dominated up front, but here we’ve got a side with the forwards getting the majority of the possession, wonderfully light runners of tremendous pace and elusiveness, particularly someone like Sopoaga in the midfield, and Beauden Barrett and the others.
“The whole back division, it’s not big and pedestrian and big-hitting; it’s actually a side which looks for the counter attack, looks to keep the ball in the hand, and that to me is a new advance in this junior game.
“I’m looking forward enormously to the final because I think England may well match them up front and then you’ve got a fantastic battle outside.
“I still think New Zealand will win but I think it will be a very close contest. The England strength now is that they have 22 outstanding players, well a 26-man squad, and that’s really what you’ve got to talk about because it’s the last 20 minutes that actually may well decide that game and the strength that you can bring off the bench.
“New Zealand have it in number and England have it in number, really for the first time, and it will be hard for the coaches Mark Anscombe and Rob Hunter to pick their team for the final because they have players of similar quality.
“It’s going to be great. You’re going to see not this big forward battle and five penalties to four, you’re going to see tries and you’re going to see the talent break through and that to me is going to make it a terrific finale to this tournament.
“And what a standard overall it is. We talk so often about the legacy of Under 19, 20 and 21 world championships and here you’re going to see pretty soon quite a hatful of these players going into senior World Cup next time around and that’s the excitement.
"We’re seeing the great stars of the future showing their abilities here already at this tournament.”
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