While the 2012 and 2013 champions have both already booked their places in the semi-finals of the IRB Junior World Championship 2014, the race is on between a handful of nations for the last two knock-out places as the pool stages reach a conclusion in New Zealand on Tuesday.
Defending tournament champions England and 2012 winners South Africa are already guaranteed their places in the last four as Pool A and C winners after beating Australia and New Zealand in the second round of matches.
While they will want to remain unbeaten with victories over Argentina and Samoa in their final pool matches, that leaves just the matter of the Pool B winner and the best runner-up to be decided in round three at QBE Stadium in North Harbour and ECOLight Stadium in Pukekohe.
Tournament hosts New Zealand are reliant on other results going their way and are eye-balling the unpalatable prospect of missing out on the semis for the first time in the event's history.
France currently top Pool B with nine points ahead of their match with Wales, but Ireland are in contention to reach a first Junior World Championship semi-final with nine points, including the bonus points they picked up in their defeat to Les Bleuets.
A win for France will guarantee them top spot in the pool and a second semi-final appearance. France beat Wales 16-10 on the way to claiming the Six Nations Grand Slam earlier in the year, but with the Welsh still retaining a chance of reaching the last four it will be no easy match.
“France have an excellent line-out and maul, so we will need to try to break up the game a little,” admitted Wales coach Byron Hayward. “They are unbeaten this season, but Ireland pushed them close and they are beatable – if we cut out the errors and every player performs to his optimum level.”
Ireland can guarantee their semi-final place with a bonus-point victory over Fiji in the opening game of the day at QBE Stadium, because even if France were to then beat Wales the 11 points the Irish would accumulate would be more than the runner-up in the other two pools can reach.
However, Ireland coach Mike Ruddock is not taking anything for granted against Fiji, who have shown glimpses of attacking flair and pushed France hard in the first half last Friday to go in trailing only 8-0 before ultimately losing 37-5.
“In our last two matches we got the result against Wales and were very competitive against France, so to sum it up I would say we have got a little better with each game,” admitted Ruddock, who was in charge when Ireland recorded their best JWC finish of fifth in 2012. “It would be a big achievement (to reach the semi-finals) but we don’t want to get carried away with the outcome. We have really focused on the process and our game plan, tactically and mentally we have got to bring it.”
New Zealand waiting in the wings
Tournament hosts New Zealand need either France or Ireland to slip up if they are to keep up their record of never having failed to reach the semi-finals in JWC history. If they do then a bonus point win over Scotland could open the door for the Baby Blacks.
Australia, like New Zealand, failed to pick up a bonus point in their loss to England last time out and that is likely to be costly. Australia will fiinish their Pool A campaign against an Italy side on a high after their 29-26 victory over Argentina last time out.
While the race for semi-finals will grab the limelight, the teams at the other end of the spectrum are also desperate to avoid being ranked ninth-12th to ensure they are not facing a battle to avoid relegation to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy for 2015.
Italy, hosts of next year’s JWC, and Samoa gave themselves a chance of avoiding that seeding bracket by picking up their first wins against Argentina and Scotland respectively in round two. That leaves only Argentina, Scotland and Fiji still seeking a victory at JWC 2014.