Excitement is building ahead of the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 semi-finals on Tuesday when defending champions South Africa will tackle Wales and four-time winners New Zealand face England at the Stade de la Rabine in Vannes.
The four captains – Ellis Jenkins (Wales), Ruan Steenkamp (South Africa), Jack Clifford (England) and Ardie Savea (New Zealand) – all came together on Sunday evening for the customary photo shoot with the trophy they all hope to lift on 23 June.
They all uttered the same phrases when asked what they expect from their respective semi-finals – “a physical encounter” – and all admitted their sides will have to be at the top of their game if they are to realise the goal of reaching the title decider.
Jenkins is the only one of the quartet with JWC semi-final experience, having been part of the Welsh side that lost 30-6 to New Zealand last year and the flanker is eager to avoid a repeat of that disappointment in 2013.
“The boys just want to go one better, we have been to a semi-final and we know what it is about and unfortunately last year we were beaten by New Zealand, but this year we hope to go one better and we think we can do it,” admitted Jenkins.
“They (South Africa) are a physical outfit as well like Argentina were. Argentina have shown that South Africa can be beat, they beat them twice earlier in the year. We have had a look at a few clips of South Africa but we aren’t going to change much.
“It is just going to come down to determination and being willing to put your body on the line for the rest of your team and if we do that it is going to take a good performance from South Africa to beat us. We are all really looking forward to the game, it is a big opportunity for all the boys.
“It is going to take everything we have got, we need to be on top of our game, tactically, mentally and physically, on the day we just need to pull a big performance out of the bag. They are a big physical unit and it is going to come down to who is willing to go to a dark place and it just comes down to who is willing to go the furthest, who is willing to go through the most pain, keep getting up and work as hard as you can.”
Wales have never tasted victory in a JWC semi-final in their two previous visits and South Africa were in the same position – albeit none from three appearances – before their victory over Argentina on home soil last year.
Steenkamp, the Junior Springbok number 8, knows they will face a huge challenge from Wales but that the fact they are the defending champions is providing that extra little bit of motivation and pride to make their country proud again.
“I think we are ready, I think the boys are ready and their minds are ready, we are focused. I think we could not have asked for a better pool stage,” admitted Steenkamp of their wins over USA, England and France to top Pool A.
“We have had the trophy at home once now, all the other years it was in New Zealand. That win brought the pride back and that’s why we work so hard with great guys and a great team. We know how to work for that pride again, to bring it back home and make our country proud.
“I think that one per cent can be a match-winning game and I think the boys are very proud, it’s a proud moment in their lives and they want to make their country back home. All the supporters back home, each one of them is playing for that support and I think that could be that little bit extra you need.”
Steenkamp, whose side have seen Jannes Kirsten ruled out of the tournament with a broken hand suffered in training over the weekend, knows his will have to “grind it through to the end” if they want to see of the Welsh challenge.
“I think they (Wales) will bring a kicking game, something we as a team have worked hard on, especially in the back field, not to counter everything but to kick back and stuff. We are ready for them and it’s going to be a great match.
“Small stuff and mistakes can cost you dearly. That’s something we saw against England too and it’s going to be the same in the play-offs. Playing in the right place on the field is going to play a big part.”
Following hot on the heels of the Wales-South Africa battle with be the fourth encounter in JWC history between England and New Zealand. The previous three were all in the final – in 2008, 2009 and 2011 – with the Baby Blacks winning on all three occasions.
England captain Clifford knows it will be a “huge” challenge against New Zealand to claim that elusive win but is hopeful the confidence generated by their record 109-0 defeat will prove beneficial to the Six Nations champions.
“We have done the analysis on the games, looked at their key players and have seen that they are a good side, very efficient with the ball, but we have also seen that there are chances and opportunities and we have just got to take them when we play them.
“We have just got to be physical, really got to take it to them, be physical in defence and physical in attack, take the game to them and try and knock them backwards.”
A sentiment echoed by England head coach Nick Walshe, who has made 11 changes to the side which ran in a record 17 tries against the Junior All-Americans last time out.
“New Zealand are such an awesome rugby nation, massive tradition, everybody loves watching them and the boys are just really looking forward to pitching themselves against the best in the world which New Zealand always are, so we will be doing everything we can to try and get a good performance in the game and will see where that takes us.
“We don’t want to try and get bogged down by what New Zealand will do, we know they are a fantastic team, we just have to stick to what we know we can do, we know we can play well. As long as we concentrate on those kind of things we will hope to come out with a positive result.”
Baby Blacks yet to hit top gear
Savea does not have to look far for inspiration to lead New Zealand into a sixth successive JWC final, his older brother Julian having been part of the Baby Blacks side that won the title in style in Argentina in 2010.
The class of 2013 have been battled hardened by narrow wins over Australia and Ireland in the pool stages and the flanker believes this is a real positive for his side, although he knows they will have to up their game to overcome England.
“Our first three games were quite tough, we didn’t get the performances we wanted but I guess looking at it in a positive way we found ourselves challenged by other teams and it’s good for our team. It shows where we are as a team and where we can work on for the semi-finals.
“We showed in the first 60 minutes against Ireland what we are capable of and when we stick to our structures. I guess it’s about playing that full 80, what let us down was the last 20 where we took our foot off the gas, hopefully in the semi-final we can play a good full 80 and come away with the win.
“That is definitely what it is going to take against England. They are a tough team and a quality side, for us to tip England we have to be on our A game.
“We have not really looked at England too much, we have only done our own preview against them, we know they have a strong, physical quality forward pack and we know that they are going to target our forward pack after what they said in the pool matches and it’s a challenge for us, but again it’s an opportunity for us to show what we can do and prove some people wrong.
“The English boys won’t give up, just like the Irish they will always be there, even if you are in the lead they will just keep coming at you. We have won it three times over them so they have a bit of motivation to try and tip us off so the boys just need to bring it on Tuesday.”
Battle for ranking positions
While a place in the JWC 2013 final will be at stake in Vannes, the other eight teams in the tournament will be just as determined to taste victory on Tuesday in their quest to secure the best possible ranking they can.
In La-Roche-sur-Yon, Ireland will tackle hosts France with Argentina meeting Australia in the fifth place semi-finals. Ireland and Argentina both finished level on 10 points with England but missed on the semi-final spot on point differential.
France have suffered a few injury blows with hooker Christopher Tolofua the latest casualty as they seek to avenge a 22-5 loss to Ireland in the Six Nations. Ireland, though, have already lost centre Tom Daly, who scored 17 points in that win.
The winner of this match will face either Australia or Argentina who have both made numerous changes to their starting line-ups, the Australians fielding an entirely different front row and Argentina retaining just two players in their pack from round three.
Meanwhile, in Nantes, Scotland take on USA and Samoa will face Fiji in the battle for Pacific Islands bragging rights with all four teams knowing that victory on Tuesday will secure their place at JWC 2014 in New Zealand.
Scotland will be strong favourites to remain on track to match their best finish of ninth, despite coach Sean Lineen taking the opportunity to rest a few players, including captain Jonny Gray, with Mark Bennett taking over the captaincy.
Fiji and Samoa met at the same stage last year with the Samoans – who had failed to score a try in the pool stages then – emerging the 29-20 winners in Cape Town. Samoa were unlucky not to win against Scotland last time out and will hope to build on that performance against their fellow Pacific Islanders.
The semi-finals will be streamed live on IRB.com, click here for more details