Defending champions South Africa, four-time winners New Zealand and Wales have qualified for the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 semi-finals as the top sides in their pools and will be joined England, who pipped Ireland and Argentina to the best runner-up spot on point differential.
Three of the semi-finalists were in action in La Roche-sur-Yon, where South Africa edged past hosts France 26-19, Wales overcame Argentina 25-20 and England rewrote the JWC record books by beating USA 109-0. New Zealand, meanwhile, held off a spirited Ireland to win 31-26 in Vannes.
New Zealand are the top seeds after the pool stages and will play England - a side they have beaten in three Junior World Championship finals - in Vannes on 18 June in the 20:45 kick-off. South Africa will face Wales in the first semi-final at the same venue, the Stade de la Rabine, at 18:15.
In the other matches on 18 June, Ireland will play France and Argentina tackle Australia in the play-off semi-finals for fifth to eight places at the Stade Henri Desgrange in La Roche-sur-Yon, while Scotland face USA and Samoa meet Fiji with all four teams eager to avoid relegation to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in 2014.
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New Zealand secured the number one seeding by virtue of securing a try bonus point in defeating Ireland, although captain Ardie Savea admitted his side were “lucky to get away with that win” after their opponents fought back from 31-11 down in the last 25 minutes.
“We thought we had them, especially early in that second half,” admitted Savea, who is hoping to emulate his brother Julian in claiming a JWC winners’ medal. “We knew that the Irish boys, they never give up and they would just keep coming at us and we were lucky to get away with that win. We took that as a quarter-final and we are just happy to be in finals footy.”
Rory Scannell and Simon Hickey traded penalties before impressive second row Patrick Tuipulotu scored the opening try just past the half hour mark. The lead though didn’t last long as minutes later Thomas Farrell intercepted and raced away to score.
Hickey edged New Zealand in front just before half time and the sin-binning of Farrell would prove a decisive moment in the match as while the centre was off the pitch the Baby Blacks pounced, with prop Epalahame Faiva and wing Lolagi Visinia crossing the Irish try-line.
Faiva added a second to secure the bonus point and New Zealand looked on course for a comfortable win, but Ireland had other ideas and came storming back with tries by flanker Dan Leavy and replacement prop Edward Byrne.
Mark Roche’s penalty cut the deficit to just six points with 10 minutes to play but despite “throwing the kitchen sink at them” in the words of captain Luke McGrath, Ireland couldn’t find the fourth try that would – even in defeat – have been enough to pip England to the best runner-up spot.
“Every loss is tough to take when you are a coach, you want to win every game. That was a tough battle against quality opposition of course but I am proud of my team, I thought my players were fantastic,” said Ireland coach Mike Ruddock.
Champions survive French rally
South Africa also had to survive a scare against France, despite taking the lead in the first minute when centre Dries Swanepoel slid over the line. By the time the sides went in at half-time there was only a point separating the two teams with South Africa leading 8-7.
The Junior Boks caught their hosts napping just two minutes into the second half when wing Luther Obi dotted down and with Handrè Pollard’s conversion and penalty making it 18-8 with only four minutes gone it seemed they would pull clear of France. However within 10 minutes the hosts, roared on by the partisan crowd, had fought back to lead 19-18 after tries from number 8 Marco Tauleigne and replacement Baptiste Serin and hopes of an upset were high for Les Bleuets.
South Africa, though, had to endure tough times in their title winning campaign in 2012 and another penalty from Pollard edged them back in front before lively full back Cheslin Kolbe danced his way over the line late on, leaving France with just a losing bonus point for their efforts.
Wales were the first to confirm their place in the semi-finals after beating Argentina in a game of two halves. The Welsh had seen a Six Nations Grand Slam slip through their fingers on the final day and they were in no mood to do the same with a semi-final place, coming out firing.
Sam Davies kicked two penalties before full back Hallam Amos scythed through some poor defence with ease, shrugging of the tackle of his opposite number Santiago Cordero to touch down in the left corner with Davies converting.
Argentina were barely able to create any opportunities, often forcing the play too much, unlike Wales who increased their lead to 16-0 when Davies slotted his second drop goal of the tournament. Argentina had a chance to get on the scoreboard but Patricio Fernandez uncharacteristically pulled it wide.
It was a different Pumitas side that emerged for the second half and they had slashed the deficit to just three points come the hour mark, flanker Pablo Matera scrambling over for a try after good forward pressure and Fernandez kicking two penalties and a conversion.
However, Wales somehow survived the Pumitas revival and Davies pushed them out to a nine point lead with just over 10 minutes to go, the last penalty coming after Argentina second row Guido Petti Pagadizabal was yellow carded for a high tackle.
England on cruise control
In complete contrast, Six Nations champions England cruised into the semi-finals after taking just 23 seconds to cross the USA try-line through wing Henry Purdy. The bonus point they knew was a must was already in the bag by the 16th minute when captain Alex Day dotted down his second try.
Four other tries followed before half-time through flankers Ross Moriarty and Joel Conlon, wing Ben Howard and full back Ollie Devoto. The tries kept on coming after the break with the USA powerless to stop wave after wave of English attack with Day and Moriarty completing their hat-tricks as Howard, Conlon, Purdy and Sisi also grabbed their second tries of the match.
Centre Tom Stephenson also scored a brace of tries, including the final try which ensured England scored the most points and tries ever in a JWC match – beating South Africa’s record of 16 tries (achieved three times) and 108 points against USA back in 2008.
Four other teams went into the final day of pool matches without a win to their names and battling to avoid being involved in the play-offs for ninth to 12 places, but it was Scotland and Australia who finally broke their ducks at JWC 2013.
Australia were the more comfortable winners, scoring seven tries to beat Fiji 46-12 in Vannes. Fly half Reece Hodge, captain Curtis Browning, wings Brad Lacey and Alex Northam, flanker Mark Baldwin, replacement Luke Burton and centre Luke Burton all touching down.
Fiji did show glimpses and were rewarded with their first tries of JWC 2013 through wing Mosese Qionimacawa and number 8 Laijaisa Bolenaivalu, but they once again face a fight to stay in the tournament and avoid relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
The match in Nantes between Samoa and Scotland went right down to the wire, Ben Cooper holding his nerve to slot the winning penalty two minutes from time to secure a 36-33 win, even though they were outscored five tries to four by the Pacific Islanders.
Tries from Jamie Farndale, Tommy Allan, Damien Hoyland, Robbie Fergusson and JJ Kilmartin had given Scotland a 33-19 advantage with 20 minutes to go, but Samoa levelled the scores with tries through Mathew Peni and Sam Ah Sam.
There was to be no first win for Samoa though as they were ultimately left ruing three missed kicks from captain Fomai Ah Ki early in the first half and while Viliamu Punivalu was proud of his players, his Scotland counterpart Sean Lineen was far from happy with his side’s performance.
“It was very exciting for the neutral but not for the Scotland coach!” Lineen admitted afterwards. “We made it very difficult for ourselves, lots of mistakes, lots of unforced errors. We knew the Samoans were very strong running, and they caused us problems around the fringes, they scored five tries around the fringes. We couldn't get out of our half, we made lots of silly errors.”