Ireland players celebrated like they had won the title after causing a massive upset on day one of the IRB Junior World Championship 2012 by beating hosts South Africa 23-19 to silence the home crowd at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch.
Few would have given Ireland a chance of upsetting a Junior Boks side packed with Super Rugby and Sevens experience in their own backyard, particularly after leaving two of their best players at home, but Mike Ruddock’s charges played with huge pride and refused to buckle under pressure.
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Ireland had a plan and it worked to perfection. They tackled South Africa low and put them under pressure at the ruck, denying them the quick ball they wanted and profiting with two charge-downs that led to tries for Jordon Coghlan and Iain Henderson.
JJ Hanrahan, filling the void at fly half left by captain Paddy Jackson's late withdrawal from the JWC squad, was at the heart of everything Ireland did, pulling the strings and slotting over the kicks when they came to finish with 13 points.
“We are an ambitious team, we knew coming in we were underdogs so we knew we had our work cut out. We set out a game plan to have a good mix in our game and make sure we had a low tackle focus throughout the whole game and I think we executed perfectly,” said captain Niall Scannell.
“To be fair to the lads they put their bodies on the line minute after minute and they just kept hanging in there, hanging in there and we got the result we felt we deserved and hopefully we can keep building.”
South Africa must now regroup and fast with Italy awaiting them on Friday before an absolutely must-win match against England on 12 June if they are to have any chance of making the semi finals and bettering their fifth place finish of 12 months ago.
“This is the last thing that we expected, we thought home ground advantage ... this is the unthinkable but it has happened. We have really got to go back now and really work hard to get the honour back,” admitted South Africa coach Theron.
“Ireland played well, for sure, they had a good kicking game and a good set piece and in the end they used their opportunities. They got two tries from charge-downs but obviously I think they worked on that and that for them was a point of difference that they really concentrated on. In the end I thought we scrummed well, at times we mauled very well, but on the night, not good enough.”
The final match at the University of Western Cape Stadium also resulted in an upset with Argentina fighting back from a 15-5 half-time deficit to beat France – considered another of the title contenders – 18-15, leaving nothing in the tank in the process.
Young guns start well
Argentina flanker Pablo Matera blamed indiscipline for allowing France to get ahead in the first half but cited their resolute defence as the reason for the turnaround, together with their passion and determination to get the victory.
Eric Escande kicked all of France’s points, but it was the try from Juan Cappiello and the boot of captain Sebastián Poet that ultimately saw Argentina home to the win that piles the pressure onto France who arrived in South Africa with hopes of repeating their semi final appearance of 2011.
There was even worse news for France with coach Didier Retiere admitting that second row Bastien Chalureau has suffered a tournament ending injury. "It's bad, the JWC is over for him as he tore his ACL. It was a hard hit for the team as he's a leader and a fighter, but unfortunately this is sport."
It doesn’t get any easier for Los Pumitas as they now face Australia on Friday, a side who laid down their title credentials with an 11-try, 62-17 rout of Scotland in the day’s opening match at the University of Western Cape Stadium in Cape Town.
Australia are the youngest squad at JWC 2012 but they were fast out of the blocks with Jed Holloway scoring the first try of the tournament inside a minute after captain Liam Gill reclaimed the kick-off, and it didn’t get much better for Scotland in the first half.
The 2010 runners-up were in the mood for scoring tries and spent long periods in the Scotland half with Nick Frisby, Hugh Roach, James Dargaville, Apo Latunipulu and Queensland Reds player Chris Sautia all touching down as Australia scored at more than a point a minute.
Milestones for Baby Blacks
Scotland did get on the board with Andrew Redmayne’s try just before half time, but Australia picked up where they had left off with another five tries after the break, including second touchdowns for hooker Roach and centre Sautia.
“When we saw the draw it was always going to be a tough match, we've played them before,” admitted Scotland coach Peter Wright. “They never disappoint us with how physical they are and they play some fantastic rugby. They got off to a dream start, 41 seconds and they scored a try, that was disappointing.”
New Zealand, bidding for a fifth successive title, were equally impressive in posting a 21st successive win on the JWC stage, crossing for 10 tries in a 63-0 defeat of Samoa, back in the elite level after winning the Junior World Rugby Trophy last year.
Ihaia West is the latest in production line of fly halves to impress for the Baby Blacks, while Jason Emery was a stand-out in the centres and wings Curtis Ambrose and Milford Keresoma scored half of New Zealand’s tries between them.
Ambrose scored the opening try, which was New Zealand’s 100th in the pool stages and also took the Baby Blacks through the 1,000 point barrier, but it was Keresoma who scored the only hat-trick of the opening day.
Champions reasonably satisfied
New Zealand did, though, leave 13 points out on the field after missing six kicks at goal which is something they will want to rectify come the knockout stages as it could prove the difference between a fifth title and a first ever JWC loss.
“I’m pretty happy with it (the performance). We probably didn’t look after the ball as well as we would have liked, we turned over a little bit of possession when we had opportunities and some of our execution wasn’t as clinical as we would like,” admitted coach Rob Penney.
“But you’ve got to give credit to the Samoa boys also who came out and hit us pretty hard on occasion and put us under a bit of pressure, so all in all reasonably satisfied.”
New Zealand’s next opponents are Wales, a side they beat 92-0 last year. Wales trailed at half time against Fiji, but took on board the words of coach Danny Wilson at half time and ended up with a convincing looking 44-18 victory to avenge another loss from 2011.
Tries from Daniel Thomas and Eli Walker – a late replacement for an ill Tom Prydie – began the recovery for Wales in the opening 10 minutes of the second half and they never looked back, scoring four further tries before the final whistle.
Tough day at the office
England were the other winners on day one, recovering from conceding an early try to Leonardo Sarto to overwhelm Italy 64-5 to top Pool B after the opening round, wing Marland Yarde scoring two of their seven tries at UWC.
The 2011 runners up were always favourites to beat Italy, but the early loss of Michele Campagnaro was something the Azzurrini never really recovered from, the centre the architect of their play and they will hope his knee injury is not as bad as first feared.
England, winners of the Under 20 Six Nations earlier this year, may have a convincing win on the board, but captain Chris Walker was quick to point out that they hadn’t had it all their own way.
“It was a lot tougher out there than the score suggested, it was a tough game. The Italians were always physical and kind of in your face. We worked hard for the victory and I think the score doesn't really reflect the game, it was a tough battle out there today.
“We are quite pleased (with our defence), there's a lot to work on out there and for the next game we'll set even higher goals. I think the scoreline is good is good obviously but there a lot of things we can draw on and work on.”