The form book was well and truly ripped up at IRB Junior World Championship 2012 as not only did New Zealand’s unbeaten run finally come to an end after 21 matches, the Baby Blacks also relinquished their grip on the distinctive trophy with hosts South Africa denying their traditional rivals a fifth successive title triumphing in a hard-fought 22-16 victory before a record crowd of 35,000 at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on 22 June.
Some might say it was fated that Wian Liebenberg would lift the trophy, given the flanker had worn six on his back, the same number that Francois Pienaar had worn when leading the Springboks to Rugby World Cup glory on home soil in 1995.
It had been billed as “the dream final”, bringing together the hosts and defending champions, both of whom had endured a rocky road to the title decider, which for the first time would be contested by teams who had lost in the pool stages, South Africa at the hands of Ireland and New Zealand to Wales.
It lived up to all expectations from the moment the sides emerged into a cauldron of noise, the Baby Blacks determined not to be the first team to return home without the trophy and the Baby Boks equally motivated to create another piece of South African rugby history.
South Africa were instantly on the front foot with the rare sight of a New Zealand pack being driven back at will, but the Baby Blacks somehow kept their line intact, restricting their hosts to three penalties from the boot of Handre Pollard, the 18-year-old fly half called up after Johan Goosen – a standout player in Super Rugby for the Cheetahs – injured his shoulder days after the squad announcement in late April.
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New Zealand scored the only try of the first half through Milford Keresoma, but the destiny of the title was anyone’s guess at half-time. Two things tipped the scales South Africa’s way as first they overpowered a New Zealand scrum five metres from their own line and then scored a try of their own two minutes later, and then enjoyed a five-minute spell with a drop goal and Jan Serfontein – who was named IRB Junior Player of the Year after the final – try to put one hand on the trophy.
The Baby Blacks refused to surrender their title without a huge fight, but could only manage another Ihaia West penalty.
“That’s what we spoke about the whole week, to never give up,” admitted captain Bryn Hall. “It’s our last opportunity to wear the black jersey, and whether you die or leave some blood or tears out here, you make sure you leave it all on the field and you make sure you don’t leave any ‘what ifs’ or ‘buts’, you make sure that you just put everything out here and just leave it all here on the field.”
His counterpart Liebenberg admitted it was “a dream come true”, while coach Dawie Theron insisted it was “the best rugby experience of my life and I played for the Springboks for 13 Tests. I must say that was very, very special, but this moment ... words just can’t describe it.”
Losing to Ireland on day one was not part of South Africa's plans
JWC 2012 Ambassador and RWC 2007 winner Ashwin Willemse was also caught up in the moment. “I think the best way to describe the final is to say it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! It is one of those things where I don’t think words will do justice to the entire atmosphere, the way in which the game was played by both teams.”
South Africa had been forced to overcome some big hurdles along the way after their shock 23-19 opening loss to Ireland. Few people gave Ireland a chance of beating a Baby Boks side brimming with Super Rugby and Sevens stars in their own backyard, particularly having elected to leave star players Shane Layden and captain Paddy Jackson at home.
But the Irish came with a plan – tackle low, put them under pressure at the ruck and deny them quick ball – and it worked to perfection, JJ Hanrahan stepping into the fly half jersey vacated by Jackson with aplomb, steering them to a fully-deserved victory and making them “the talk of the team room” in New Zealand according to Brian O’Driscoll.
Ireland would ultimately rue the one that got away against England, Shane Buckley’s yellow card resulting in 14 unanswered points and a 20-15 loss, one which cost Mike Ruddock’s charges a first-ever JWC semi-final. Had they beaten England then South Africa would have been facing the prospect of missing the semi-finals for a second year in succession.
After Ireland swept Italy aside, South Africa needed to beat England and score four tries to avoid losing top spot to the Irish on the head-to-head rule. A scintillating second-half display at Cape Town Stadium – a venue for the FIFA World Cup in 2010 – saw them achieve that goal, meaning three-time runners-up England missed out on the semi-finals for the first time.
Ireland would still record their best ever finish of fifth after avenging their loss to England and then beating France, Hanrahan showing why he was nominated for the IRB Junior Player of the Year award with another impressive display.
England finished a disappointing seventh after another second-half comeback, this time against Australia on the final day. Australia on paper were arguably the strongest squad, led by Queensland Reds flanker Liam Gill and featuring a raft of Tokyo Sevens winners, but their 67-12 rout of Scotland on day one proved a false dawn with defeats by Argentina, France (twice) and England following.
Argentina were the surprise package of JWC 2012, edging France 18-15 on day one and then proving that was no fluke by beating Australia 15-3 amid the pouring rain at Danie Craven Stadium. Australia simply had no answer to Los Pumitas, flanker Pablo Matera winning the race to touch down for the decisive second try.
They had toured South Africa in April and lost all three matches, but laid the foundations for an amazing team spirit and belief which carried Argentina to their first ever semi-final. Argentina insisted they were there “to win the title”, but they had no answer to a dominant South African forward pack in the semi-finals, losing 35-3 and then 25-17 to Wales in the third place play-off.
Wales became the first to beat New Zealand in JWC history on day two in the Stellenbosch mud
By finishing third Wales bettered the fourth place of the 2008 team led by Sam Warburton. Their finest hour, though, had come on day two when they became the first to beat New Zealand on the JWC stage, avenging a 92-0 humiliation a year earlier.
This may have been a New Zealand without any Super Rugby players, but Wales had the right game plan for the difficult conditions and three penalties from the boot of wing Tom Prydie secured a tense 9-6 victory, setting them on the road to the semi-finals with a 74-3 rout of Samoa making them the top seeds.
New Zealand had to dig deep against a spirited Fijian side to secure the try bonus point and the best runner-up spot in the semi-finals, meaning they would again face Wales. The Welsh again started brightly, leading 6-0 with Prydie’s penalties, but once New Zealand hit the front just before half-time there was only ever going to be one winner, the Baby Blacks triumphing 30-6.
Despite their exploits against New Zealand, Fiji ended up facing Italy in the 11th place play-off after losing 29-20 to Samoa on day four. Samoa had scored just six points in the pool stages, but suddenly came alive with four tries to avenge their earlier loss.
Fiji had recorded their best-ever finish of sixth last year, but had to survive a late rally from Italy to win 19-17 to avoid relegation to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, a fate that had befallen Samoa and Tonga in the last two years. Instead, Italy will travel to Chile next year, hoping to win the Trophy as they did in 2010 to rejoin the elite nations.
IRB JUNIOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 2012 RESULTS
Wales 44-18 Fiji
New Zealand 63-0 Samoa
Fiji 15-3 Samoa
New Zealand 6-9 Wales
Wales 74-3 Samoa
New Zealand 33-12 Fiji
England 64-5 Italy
South Africa 19-23 Ireland
South Africa 52-3 Italy
England 20-15 Ireland
Ireland 41-12 Italy
South Africa 28-15 England
Australia 67-12 Scotland
France 15-18 Argentina
Australia 3-15 Argentina
France 30-29 Scotland
Argentina 17-12 Scotland
France 31-7 Australia
Scotland 34-17 Italy
Fiji 20-29 Samoa
France 19-17 Australia
Ireland 27-12 England
Wales 6-30 New Zealand
Argentina 3-35 South Africa
Italy 17-19 Fiji
Scotland 62-28 Samoa
England 17-13 Australia
Ireland 18-7 France
Argentina 17-25 Wales 25
South Africa 22-16 New Zealand
1 South Africa
2 New Zealand
12 Italy (Relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2013)