By Jon Newcombe
As preparation for this summer’s IRB World Junior Championship, the Under 20 Six Nations could not have gone much better for Grand Slam-winning France.
Not only did Les Bleuets achieve their first-ever Under 20 Six Nations clean sweep, they also struck a psychological blow over JWC 2014 Pool B opponents Wales and Ireland along the way.
The 23-13 victory over Ireland in Tarbes on Friday clinched a fifth straight victory for France, who were once again indebted to the boot of Baptiste Serin for seeing them home.
Serin, the latest in a long line of talented goal-kicking scrum halves to come out of France, kicked 13 points from three penalties and two conversions to take his overall tally for the championship to 44 from four starts.
The Begles-Bordeaux player, who turns 20 on the day of the JWC 2014 final, could have snatched a try too had he not been narrowly beaten to the ball in the in-goal area by Ireland wing Alex Wootton following a clever kick ahead by Kylan Hamdaoui.
That near-miss and Pierre Justes’ knock-on close to the Ireland line as he attempted to gather in his own chip ahead meant the result of the match was always on a knife-edge going into the latter stages.
Trailing 13-3 at the hour mark following a try by France hooker Romain Ruffenach and eight points from Serin’s boot, Ireland responded with a second Ross Byrne penalty before replacement Frankie Taggart’s try, converted by Byrne, levelled the score.
Byrne then missed a relatively straightforward kick whereas Serin was successful with his next shot at goal. Victory and the Under 20 Six Nations title was secured right at the death when Felix Lambey dived over from close range.
An opening day 21-15 win over England proved crucial in the final Six Nations standings, France finishing two points clear of the defending champions and JWC 2013 winners who, like their senior side, had to settle for second place after responding to their setback at the Stade Leo Lagrange with four straight victories.
Wales finished the championship in third place after registering three wins and two defeats, with Ireland back in fourth, Italy fifth and Scotland propping up the table for the first time in three years after suffering a whitewash.
For England it was a case of what might have been. Nick Walshe’s side went on to score almost twice as many points (215) and almost three times as many tries (31) as the eventual champions and, like France, they rounded off their campaign with victory over a team they will meet again in the pool stages of JWC 2014.
Against Italy, tries from Joel Conlon, Maro Itoje, Harry Sloan, Aaron Morris, Tom Woolstencroft, Callum Braley, Henry Purdy and Nathan Morris put England on the way to a 52-5 win at the Stadio Peroni while Sam Olver added 10 points with the boot, and Aaron Morris two.
"We've developed hugely over the course of the tournament, the performances have been extremely encouraging," England head coach Nick Walshe said. "I'm immensely proud of the whole group - not just the players but the management too.
"We're still growing as a team. Our total focus is now on preparing for us to be able to perform at the Junior World Championship in June.
Wales put their frightful hammering at the hands of England behind them to finish on a high with a 43-15 victory against Scotland in Colwyn Bay.
Byron Hayward’s side ran in seven tries, three in the first half and four more after the break, against an ill-disciplined Scotland team who played half an hour of the contest a man down after picking up three yellow cards.