It was a day of close escapes at the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 on Sunday as all four of last year’s semi-finalists had to survive scares to remain unbeaten going into the final round of pool matches.
Defending champions South Africa battled past England 31-24 in La Roche-sur-Yon while Wales and Argentina set up the expected Pool C decider by overcoming Scotland 26-21 and Samoa 28-16 respectively in Nantes and New Zealand edged Austalia 14-10 in Vannes.
A nervy finish seemed unlikely when South Africa established a 21-0 lead against England, wing Senatla Seabelo easily outpacing the defence to score in the first minute and then intercepting a stray pass half an hour later for his sixth try of the tournament.
The deficit could have been even worse for a shell-shocked England as 11 points went begging from the boots of Robert du Preez and Handre Pollard, but they gradually came into the match and a break from Sam Hill resulted in a try for his fellow centre Harry Sloan.
England started the second half as South Africa had the first with second row Elliott Stooke going over after a break from captain Jack Clifford, but the Baby Boks hit back almost instantly through flanker Jacques du Plessis. Henry Purdy’s try cut the deficit to seven points with 20 minutes to go but England were unable to cross the line and had to settle for a losing bonus point.
“I just applaud our guys, South Africa are a fantastic team, they got that lead and you have to give credit to them as well, two very good teams out there,” said England coach Nick Walshe. “It was pretty tough, but the boys were magnificent and I couldn't have asked anything more from them.”
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Wales were made to work very hard for their second win of JWC 2013 by Scotland. Leading 13-0 after 30 minutes thanks to an Aaron Warren try, set up from an outstanding offload from full back Jordan Williams, and eight points from the boot of Sam Davies, Wales looked set for a comfortable afternoon.
However Sean Lineen’s charges scored the next 16 points to take the lead over a side they lost 42-17 to in the Six Nations earlier this year, number 8 Adam Ashe crashing over for their try in this rally.
Jordan Williams again played a pivotal role in Wales’ second try, scored by centre Steffan Hughes, and despite Davies kicking two more penalties, Eoghan Masterson proved the beneficiary from Scotland’s forwards to set up an enthralling finale. Scotland had plenty of territory and possession in the dying minutes, but were unable to find that winning score.
Samoa paid the price for two yellow cards in five minutes early in the second half with Argentina scoring 17 unanswered points before the islanders were back to a full complement of players to make it two wins from two at JWC 2013 with a 28-16 triumph.
The islanders had not scored more than three points in a pool match since the 2010 tournament but lively fly half Faranisisi Fenika kicked them into a 9-3 lead in the first quarter as Samoa seemed inspired to cause an upset by their senior team's historic win over Scotland yesterday.
However a great break from Santiago Cordero led to a Samoan scrum just metres from their own line and when the ball squirted out the side, scrum half Juan Bernardini was quickest to react and dive on it for the opening try. The Argentine full back was proving dangerous but it was only when Patricio Fernandez - who had scored 29 points on day one - came off the bench and the yellow cards came for Fenika and number 8 Matt Peni that their pressure told.
First replacement Pablo Matera touched down at the back of a driving maul, before Argentina were awarded a penalty try after a scrum near the Samoan line. The islanders though kept battling to the finish and were rewarded with their first try of JWC 2013 through Tofatuimoana Solia.
Despite the loss, there was still plenty for Samoa coach Viliamu Punivalu to be happy with. “I wouldn't say I am disappointed, there were a few mistakes but the boys played with a lot of heart and that is what I said to them. Now the boys know they can do it, it is a just a matter of showing their ability and believing in themselves. I think they did in this game, I am so proud to be their coach."
Contrasting results in Pool B
New Zealand and Australia had never met in the pool stages before, but played out a match full of the traditional trans-Tasman rivalry and one that was not settled until the final whistle, which the Baby Blacks were the happier team to hear.
Three penalties from fly half Simon Hickey and flanker Joseph Edwards’ try gave New Zealand a 14-0 lead after only 21 minutes, before Reece Hodge got the Australians on the board only to miss another attempt just before the break.
The second half was a different story as Australia kept their opponents’ scoreless and cut the deficit to just four points after a period of prolonged on the Baby Blacks’ line saw the ball swung out wide for replacement Luke Burton to dive over to the delight of his teammates.
Just like Scotland and England though the Australians couldn’t find the winning score, leaving captain Curtis Browning devastated but proud at the final whistle. “I’m really proud of them. It is obviously disappointing to have two back-to-back losses in a tournament like this, but the boys really stuck in and you can’t fault their effort, it was there.”
New Zealand will now face Ireland in the Pool B decider with both level on nine points after the Irish ran in six tries in a 46-3 defeat of Fiji at the Stade de la Rabine in Vannes, wings Rory Scholes and Darren Sweetnam both scoring a brace.
Flanker Dan Leavy and prop Chris Taylor were the other try scorers for Ireland who backed up their win over Australia on day one with the bonus point win they knew would be important if they were to have a chance of reaching a first ever JWC semi-final.
Fiji showed glimpses of the Sevens style open play they are renowned for but were unable to find a way through the impressive Ireland defence and will now look to end their campaign on a high by beating Australia.
Room for French improvement
The day’s other match saw France record their first victory of JWC 2013, the hosts running in six tries to beat USA 45-3 in La Roche-sur-Yon although manager Fabien Pelous admitted they still have plenty of work to do if they are to challenge South Africa on day three.
Vincent Mallet opened the scoring with a penalty before captain Paul Jedrasiak had the strength to touch down near the posts. His counterpart Tom Bliss had the chance to score his side’s first try on their return to the JWC stage but dropped the ball over the line.
They did get on the scoreboard when Liam Bourke opened their JWC 2013 account with a penalty, but France Sevens player Stephen Parez responded with a try minutes later to give Les Bleuets a 17-3 lead at half-time.
Wing Gabriel Lacroix, flanker Francois Cros, scrum half Bastien Duhalde and full back Maxime Wieprecht all crossed for tries in the second half as France moved level on points with England in Pool A.
“We created opportunities but found it difficult to take them. We could have scored more points but we still have this issue of not being clinical enough and handling errors, which other teams have much less than us,” said Pelous.
The pool stages conclude on Thursday with New Zealand meeting Ireland and Australia tackling Fiji in Vannes and Scotland facing Samoa in Nantes. Fans in La Roche-sur-Yon will be treated to a double header with Wales facing Argentina, South Africa tackling France and England meeting USA.
The three pool winners will qualify for the semi-finals and be joined by the best runner-up.