South Africa delivered a stern warning to their rivals of their determination to retain the IRB Junior World Championship title with an emphatic opening day 97-0 victory over USA at the Stade Henri Desgrange in La Roche-sur-Yon on Wednesday.
The Baby Boks scored a record-equalling 16 tries in the win – matching their own marks against USA in 2008 and Fiji in 2011 – and recorded the biggest winning margin in the tournament’s six-year history against the side returning to the JWC as IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012 winners.
They could have surpassed 100 points for the third time had captain Ruan Steenkamp not had the ball knocked out of his grip over the line with the final play of the match, but another record matched was wing Seabelo Senatla crossing for four tries.
There could have been no tougher start for USA on their return to the JWC after a five-year absence and despite their best efforts South Africa simply had too much pace and power for them to handle, the Baby Boks scoring from everywhere on the pitch.
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Roelof Smit began the try-scoring fest in the fifth minute with Cheslin Kolbe, Senatla (3), Steenkamp, Justin Geduld (2) and Jacques du Toit crossing in the first half. There was no let up after the break with Senatla claiming try number four within a minute of the restart.
Jesse Kriel , Mike Willemse and Luther Obi all scored braces for the Baby Boks, but it could the score could have been even worse for USA as 18 points were left out on the field with nine missed conversions.
“It was important for us to get a good start, it was a game we expected to do well but it was a difficult start as we know the other games will be harder. We are happy we have come through this and it was a great start for us,” admitted coach Dawie Theron.
South Africa’s next match will be a much tougher prospect against England, who ran out 30-6 winners over tournament hosts France in the first match at the venue, repeating their win in the Under 20 Six Nations earlier in the year.
Defence held firm
England started brightly but were unable to turn pressure into points until hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie emerged with the ball after a rolling maul crashed over the line in the 23rd minute to make it 10-0.
The score had moved on to 13-6 early in the second half after Henry Slade and Baptiste Serin exchanged penalty, but England finished the last quarter strongly with captain Jack Clifford showing a good turn of pace to run in two tries.
“We knew that this was going to be tough, and that’s how it proved. The scoreline probably doesn’t reflect the match – we were under pressure for long periods and our defence held firm,” admitted Clifford, who had scored a hat-trick against France in the Six Nations.
“They were much improved from when we played them in the Six Nations so we’re delighted to get the win.”
Ireland caused the surprise in Pool B by beating Australia 19-15 at Stade de la Rabine in Vannes, centre Tom Daly easing any nerves as the clock ticked down with a penalty to give the men in green another big scalp on the opening day of the championship.
Twelve months ago they had stunned hosts – and eventual champions – South Africa with an impressive win, this match was a dogged performance and owed as much to their determination as Australia’s failure to convert periods of pressure into points on the scoreboard.
Rory Scholes managed to score in the tightest of spaces when Ireland worked the ball wide in the 25th minute to give his side a deserved 10-0 lead, before UJ Seuteni finally got Australia on the scoreboard with a penalty.
Irish "over the moon"
Australia cut the deficit to two points on the stroke of half-time when a lineout near the Irish line saw Thomas Staniforth benefit from a driving maul to touch down, although both sides could rue a number of missed opportunities.
Daly kept Ireland’s score ticking over with two penalties but, with seven minutes to go, wing Alex Northam picked up a loose ball on his own 22 and sprinted away to score under the posts, giving Luke Burton an easy conversion to cut the deficit to just a point.
There was to be no rescue act, though, for Australia with Daly adding his fourth penalty of the afternoon and ensuring scenes of celebration at the final whistle with captain Luke McGrath admitted he was “absolutely over the moon” with the win.
His counterpart Curtis Browning, a member of the Australian side that finished eighth in 2013, refused to blame the pressure of the occasion for the defeat, insisting that “we didn’t capitalise on the possession we had and the good opportunities we had at the end of the day”.
Australia must now regroup to face their Trans Tasman rivals New Zealand on day two, the four-time champions running out 59-6 winners over a Fiji side that had a player sent off by referee Andrew McMenemy in each half.
When captain Ardie Savea wrestled the ball from a Fijian and touched down after just 19 seconds it seemed that the Baby Blacks would run riot, but that proved unfounded initially when the score was only 18-6 after half an hour as their opponents steadied the ship.
The dismissal of centre Sevanaia Galala put Fiji on the back foot and three yellow cards in five minutes either side of half time had the islanders playing with 11 men briefly. They had only just made it back to 14 when Viliame Rarasea also saw red.
A need to "up our game"
With a two-man advantage New Zealand ran in another four tries, Leroy van Dam scoring a brace around tries from Scott Scrafton and Michael Collins, but Savea knows they will need to up their performance if they are to regain the coveted trophy.
“It was a good first game, and we will take that win,” the flanker said. “We will take a lot of positives, but we know there are a few things we can work on. We knew Fiji would have a physical presence, but against bigger teams we need to up our game.”
Wales and Samoa earlier had the honour of opening JWC 2013, with the Welsh responding to a strong start from the islanders to more than match their bigger opponents in terms of physicality and working the ball wide to make the most of the space they found.
Last year’s semi-finalists only had a 18-3 lead at half-time, but as the match wore on Wales began to run in the tries with quick tries by second row Carwyn Jones and replacement Sion Bennett putting the match beyond doubt.
The bonus point for four tries was in the back for Wales by now and although Samoa battled hard to the finish there was still time for number 8 Ieuan Jones and replacement hooker Elliot Dee to get their names on the scoreboard and make the final score 42-3.
That margin of victory means it is Wales that top Pool C after day one from Argentina, the side they beat in the third place play-off a year ago, after Los Pumitas showed they will be among the title contenders with a 44-13 victory over Scotland.
Any side facing an Argentinean outfit knows they will be in for a physical encounter up front and Scotland coach Sean Lineen admitted his side were “hammered” early on and even a little surprised by what they faced.
Desire key for Argentina
“I think that we knew they were going to be physical but at the same time I don’t think we expected that,” Lineen admitted. “For the first 10, 15 minutes we got hammered and we did all we could to try and counter that and we struggled, let's be honest we found it tough.
“They are a good side, there is not really much more that I can say, we were well beaten.
“If you look at our two tries, they were good play and we did a lot of good stuff but it was our own mistakes that put us under pressure and allowed them to score as many as they did and for us as a team who pride ourselves on defence it hurts us.”
Patricio Fernandez, one of a number of players in the Argentina side to have already made their Test debuts, was once again a standout player for Los Pumitas, just as he had been in their two victories over the defending JWC champions during a warm-up tour in April.
The fly half contributed 29 points in the victory but captain Felipe Ezcurra knows there is more to come from his side. “We didn't play as well as we could, but we can't complain with a bonus point win.
“We came out to play a bit more in the second half and the tries followed. I think that the key to our win today was that we wanted it more than Scotland and that we retained our concentration throughout the match.”
The action continues on Sunday when South Africa face England and France meet USA in Pool A in La Roche-sur-Yon, New Zealand tackle Australia and Ireland face Fiji in Pool B in Vannes and Wales meet Scotland and Argentina face Samoa in Pool C in Nantes.
Highlights of all six matches will be available on the IRB website on Thursday.