Just one day remains in the pool stages of the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 and with seven teams still in the running for those sought-after semi final places the tournament has never been more open.
One team that finds themselves on the cusp of a final four slot is Wales, who top Pool C after beating Samoa and Scotland. They are not in unfamiliar territory either, having topped their pool last year after winning all three matches, including a famous victory over New Zealand.
This year it’s Argentina that stand in their way, a side spurred on by talented fly half Patricio Fernández and one capable of getting into the final four after doing so last year. They have also picked up nine points from their first two matches and Wales centre Jack Dixon knows the challenge that lies ahead of his team in La Roche-sur-Yon.
“We have two wins out of two so we’re on the right track,” said Dixon. “But we know we are going to have to fight to win the Argentina game. We have pace in the backline and athletic forwards who like to throw the ball too but we have to play in the right areas against Argentina or they’ll punish us.
“We are busting to get to the semi-finals so we’ll certainly go into the game all guns blazing. We have a number of players who were involved last year so that experience should help and we have a lot of leaders in our team, along with Ellis Jenkins who is a great captain.”
Jenkins himself added: “It’s going to be a tough game and we know it’s going to take absolutely everything on the pitch. They are a physical bunch and we know there are going to be some real sore bodies on Thursday night whatever the result, hopefully it will be made a lot easier with a victory.
“We knew this was going to be the third game and it was going to be a tight pool and as it is we are tied on points so whoever wins this game will go through. We knew it was going to be tight and we would have to win all three games to qualify.”
Ireland in the running for semis
Unlike Wales, Ireland have never reached the semi-finals before, narrowly missing out in 2012 despite shocking hosts South Africa on day one and having to settle for their best finish of fifth.
They are in the running again after upsetting Australia and overcoming Fiji, although they have suffered a massive blow with the news that centre Tom Daly has been ruled out of the tournament with a broken hand suffered in the 46-3 win over the islanders.
Add in that their final Pool B opponents are four-time champions New Zealand, who have never failed to make the JWC final, and the challenge is looking pretty tough for the men in green.
However coach coach Mike Ruddock is confident his side will meet them toe-to-toe.
“This is a big game for both sides, the winner of this will have a guaranteed place in the semi-finals,” he said. “We have a huge respect for New Zealand rugby and particularly their record at this age grade level, but once the whistle goes on Thursday we will be as competitive as we can be to progress to the next round.”
Defending champions South Africa are in pole position to claim a semi-final spot as Pool A winners after overwhelming USA 97-0 on day one and then battling past England 31-24 last time out.
Junior Boks coach Dawie Theron has shuffled his line-up for the encounter with hosts France in La Roche-sur-Yon, making five starting changes and one positional, with Handrè Pollard reverting from centre to fly half.
“We played a tough match against England so it is important that we bring in some fresh legs. This match against France is a crucial one for both teams. We cannot afford to lose because there are still a number of teams who can grab the four semi-final spots,” said Theron.
“We know we are going to face a very brave and passionate French team. They are under pressure because of their loss against England and also because of the expectations of their home fans. They will be highly motivated so we will have to be strong and ready for a huge battle.”
France target the perfect match
The South Africans know all about home support after a crowd of 35,000 cheered them to victory over the Baby Blacks in the JWC 2012 final at Newlands. They also had to survive a nervous day three encounter with England, scoring the crucial try bonus point to keep their hopes alive.
This time round France will be relying on home support to provide the impetus they need to upset the defending champions, a bonus-point win a must if they are to have any hope of sneaking into the semi-finals.
“We are looking forward to it, there’s some excitement and we want to go for it,” said France prop Cyril Baille. “It will be the biggest game of the pool, it’s up to us to give it all and I think all the boys are ready for a great performance.
“We can beat them if we perform well in the basic areas, a perfect contest to attack well and then it will all go down to details, all the small errors we made in the first two matches would cost us dearly in this game. We'll have to play the perfect match!
“Physically, it will tell us where we are, to have an assessment. Even if it was a great confrontation against England, we know this one will be a step higher in terms of physical impacts. This is why we must be ready to take up this huge challenge.”
The other Pool A side hoping to still be in contention for the title come the final whistle will be England, who know they need to run in the tries against the USA to give themselves the best possible chance of a semi-final spot as it could all come down to point differential.
England have made seven changes up front and forwards coach Ian Peel is keen to try out as many squad members as possible in the tournament.
“We’ve had two really physical tests and we just wanted to freshen things up. The guys who we’ve brought in have been coming off the bench and now it’s their turn to start and make an impact from the get-go. We’ve got a really strong squad we want to use everybody – it keeps bodies fresh and we have full confidence in the whole squad.”
First wins the target
The match will not only be a special occasion for scrum half Alex Day, who will captain the team for the first time, but also for Jack Clifford, the regular captain who will start on the bench, and USA scrum half and captain Tom Bliss. The pair played together through the age grades for Cobham RFC and now find themselves together on the JWC stage.
The remaining two matches on Thursday will not have any impact on the race for the semi-finals, but there is still plenty at stake for Australia, Fiji, Scotland and Samoa as they search for their first win of JWC 2013.
A win for Australia or Scotland should ensure they will play-off for fifth to eighth positions and not leave them having to battle to retain their places in the IRB Junior World Championship for next year in New Zealand.
Australia came into the tournament wanting to better their finish of eighth last year and bounced back from their opening day loss to Ireland with a much better display against trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in round two, but still came away with a 14-10 defeat.
A good win over Fiji will bolster their confidence going in the knockout stages of the tournament with the target now being to secure the best possible position they can.
Scotland’s losing bonus point last time out against Wales could be vital in their bid to avoid the bottom tier for the fourth tournament in a row. If they can then a best finish will be guaranteed for the Scots, who have never finished higher than ninth.
Something coach Sean Lineen knows only too well. “This is a real opportunity to give ourselves a chance to move up to the next level for the first time ever. Players have worked hard. We know Samoa will come at us but we need to front up and play our game.”
Samoa did cause problems for Argentina in round two but ill-discipline cost them with two yellow cards in quick succession allowed Los Pumitas to gain control of the match and deny the spirited islanders, something they will be keen to avoid against Scotland.
Wales v Argentina will be one of five matches streamed live on IRB.com on Thursday. Click here for more details and for where you can also watch the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 on television around the globe.