The 2013 edition of the IRB Junior World Championship had a lot to live up to after its predecessor in South Africa, but as records fell in north-west France a new champion was crowned after England came from behind to beat Wales 23-15 in the first all-northern hemisphere final and finally get their hands on the trophy after three previous appearances had ended in losses to New Zealand between 2008 and 2011.
The final was the proverbial game of two halves; the first belonged to Wales with their fly half Sam Davies producing some touches of brilliance, including a cross-field kick that fell into the arms of wing Ashley Evans for the opening try. The wing intercepted for his second try and at half-time Wales led 15-3 and seemed on track to avenge their loss to England in the Under 20 Six Nations title decider three months earlier that denied them a Grand Slam.
Wales had a man advantage for the opening 10 minutes of the second half with Dominic Barrow in the sin-bin but they failed to make it count and full back Jack Nowell began the England revival just before the hour mark with a try. The momentum had swung England’s way and it seemed just a matter of when, rather than if, they would hit the front, Sam Hill’s try and the boot of fly half Henry Slade ensuring it was their side celebrating at the final whistle in Vannes.
“I have never felt anything like it before, it’s an awesome feeling and very humbling,” England captain Jack Clifford admitted afterwards. “The support we had and the way the guys played was just fantastic. We had to pull together and it was all about heart and putting in 150 per cent. There was no point where I thought we had it definitely, all credit to Wales, they are a great team and they really took it to us.”
For his counterpart Ellis Jenkins, it was another opportunity that had got away. “It’s tough, that’s the second time this season that we have come unstuck against England, but I’m extremely proud of the boys and what we have achieved in this tournament. We have come a long way as players, as a team and as friends. We have made history being the first Welsh side to get to the final but I suppose that makes it a lot harder to take. The smallest margins make the biggest difference so to get to the final and not make the most of it is tough to take.”
There was some consolation for Wales with fly half Davies named the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2013 after the final, having beaten Clifford and New Zealand captain Ardie Savea to the prestigious honour after impressing throughout the tournament.
Davies had been pivotal in Wales reaching their first ever final as it was another perfectly weighted kick that allowed Ashley Evans to gather and touch down with a minute left on the clock of their semi-final against South Africa. The fly half then held his nerve to slot the touchline conversion and snatch the win 18-17, thereby ending South Africa’s hopes of back-to-back titles.
The other semi-final was equally entertaining with England creating their own piece of history by beating New Zealand for the first time at age grade level, largely thanks to their impressive start which saw them lead 23-8 before the Baby Blacks came roaring back at them. Tom Smallbone’s try ensured there would be no comeback victory as New Zealand failed to reach the final for the first time in Junior World Championship history with the 33-21 loss.
New Zealand would ultimately finish fourth after losing an enthralling 11-try fest with South Africa 41-34. The Baby Blacks had raced into a 21-0 lead after the first quarter and threatened to run away with it, but South Africa came racing back to tie things up again. New Zealand edged ahead again but once more the outgoing champions responded, capitalising on two yellow cards for the Baby Blacks to hit the front just before the hour mark and ensure they finished on a positive note.
There were also wins on the final day for France, Australia and Samoa over Argentina, Ireland and Scotland respectively. Hosts France did it the hard way against Los Pumitas in La Roche-sur-Yon, trailing by 22 points at half-time before battling back to win 37-34 and finish fifth overall. Australia’s 28-17 win avenged their loss to Ireland on the opening day and gave them a one-place better finish then 2012, while Samoa beat Scotland 33-24 in Nantes to claim ninth place.
USA found life extremely difficult on their return to the elite tier for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 2008 and had scored just six points going into the 11th place play-off against Fiji, who for the second year in a row faced a must-win finale to remain in the Championship. Fiji, as expected, proved too strong and ran out 46-12 winners, but at least the Americans crossed for two tries in defeat. They will now travel to Hong Kong next year, hoping to win the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy for a second time in three years to secure a return.
The Junior All-Americans, as the team are known back home, knew they were in for a tough journey in France, but after conceding 16 tries in a 97-0 loss to South Africa on day one, they then slipped to a 45-3 defeat to their hosts. Worse was to come, though, as England ran riot on match day three, setting a number of JWC records including the most tries (17), highest score (109) and the biggest winning margin (109).
Despite the emphatic defeats they suffered, captain Tom Bliss was able to find positives from the experience. “I think one of the positives that has come from this is the guys know what a professional environment is, they have come up against professional players and they know what they have to do to make that step up so it has been a good learning curve.”
There had been plenty of excitement going into the sixth edition of the Junior World Championship in France with many mouth-watering matches on the cards in the pool stages after the 2012 results had shaken up the seedings. Defending champions South Africa would have to face England and hosts France in Pool A, while New Zealand would meet trans-Tasman rivals Australia in Pool B and two of last year’s semi-finalists would meet in Pool C in Wales and Argentina.
South Africa, with Sevens stars Seabelo Senatla and Cheslin Kolbe tormenting defences, would top Pool A after battling past both England and France, a converted try the difference at the final whistle in both matches. England would join the Junior Springboks in the semi-finals as the best runner-up, their record score against USA meaning they edged Ireland and Argentina on point differential.
For the second year in a row Ireland had come close to a maiden semi-final, this time claiming the scalp of Australia on day one and then giving four-time champions New Zealand an almighty scare, fighting back from 20 points down to ultimately lose 31-26. Savea, the heartbeat of the New Zealand side, admitted his Baby Blacks side were “lucky to get away with that win” against an Irish side that had they scored another try would have knocked England out of semi-final contention.
The Wales-Argentina encounter that was part of a triple header at La Roche-sur-Yon on 13 June was always expected to be the Pool C decider and a battle between two standout fly halves in Davies and Patricio Fernández, one of a number of players to have made their Test debut for Los Pumas a month earlier. Wales were in no mood to miss out on the semi-finals and Argentina barely created an opportunity in the first half to trail 16-0. They did rally but Wales were not to be denied and emerged the 25-20 winners.
3 South Africa
4 New Zealand