By Jon Newcombe
Four months out from the start of IRB Junior World Rugby Championship 2014, reigning champions England suffered what they hope is only a temporary setback in their preparations for the tournament in New Zealand with a 21-15 defeat to 14-man France in the opening round of the RBS Under 20 Six Nations.
The defeat also places into question their ability to retain the U20 Six Nations crown they have held for the last three years, although France, in 2010, managed to lose their first game (9-6 to Ireland) yet still go on and win the championship.
England started the brighter of the two sides in Draguignan on Friday and were 7-0 up after six minutes, Gloucester flanker Ross Moriarty – a member of their JWC 2013 winning side – setting up a try for centre Tom Stephenson. But France hit back with two quick-fire penalties from the boot of scrum half Baptiste Serin, the second coming after an infringement by hooker Harry Thacker which earned him a yellow card.
Serin kicked his third penalty shortly after the restart to hand France the lead for the first time in the match, but Billy Burns – the younger brother of England international Freddie – replied in kind to edge England ahead again.
In a fractious affair, ill-discipline then got the better off both sides as Xavier Mignot and Henry Purdy were sent to the sin-bin for throwing punches.
Captain Francois Cros’s try and Serin’s superb touchline conversion handed France a 16-10 lead before they lost Anthony Rochet to a straight red card with 15 minutes to go after the replacement prop head butted England’s Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi.
Ireland too strong for Scotland
Sensing a lifeline, England pressed forward and were rewarded with a try through second row Maro Itoje to close the gap to one point. Crucially Burns’ conversion went just wide and it was left to France to seal victory with Jean Baptiste Singer’s 78th minute try.
“I think frustration probably best sums up the mood in the changing room. We know that we can play better but the conditions were tough and we gave it our best shot,” England captain Callum Braley admitted afterwards.
The victory leaves France third in the table, behind Ireland and Wales on point difference following the opening round of matches after they enjoyed more convincing victories over Scotland and Italy respectively.
Ireland ran out 34-7 winners over the Scots at Dubarry Park to avenge the agonising one-point loss they suffered in the Borders last year.
Strong-carrying number 8 Jack O’Donoghue capped a man-of-the-match display with a brace of tries and he was joined on the scoresheet by back-row colleague Peadar Timmins and replacement prop Oisin Heffernan.
Despite the difficult conditions underfoot in Athlone, fly half Ross Byrne landed six kicks from seven attempts for a 14-point return. A late consolation try from Ben Vellacott was all Scotland had to show for their efforts.
Positive start for Wales
Scotland coach Sean Lineen admitted his side had been second best. “We were up against a pretty polished outfit, playing at a high level and the boys found out what we meant by intensity. We were still the architects of our own failure, though, and made a lot of errors at set-piece. The players are just not used to playing at this level so that’s an area we’ve got to work hard on.”
Ireland can now look forward to a second home game on consecutive weekends with Wales, who they will meet in the pool stages of JWC 2014 on 6 June, the visitors to Dubarry Park this Friday.
Wales got their Six Nations campaign off to a winning start with 26-9 victory over Italy at Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay. But, like the senior men’s fixture the next day, their newly assembled side found Italy a tough opponent to crack.
Fielding 10 debutants at this level, Wales scored the only try of the first half through wing Joshua Adams. With two penalties coming from the boot of Ethan Davies to three in reply from Italy’s Philip Buscema, Wales’ lead was only two points at the interval.
But Bryon Hayward’s outfit upped the tempo after the break, scoring tries through James Benjamin and Dafydd Howells as well as putting in an impressive defensive display to keep the visitors scoreless in the second half.
“It was very pleasing, there's a lot of things we worked on during the week that we managed to get into the game," said Wales captain Steffan Hughes. "It's always great to get off to a good start and we're really proud with the effort. We've got some work to do for next week, but we're really positive.”