Defending champions England, hosts New Zealand, 2012 winners South Africa and first time semi-finalists Ireland are itching to get their last four encounters at the IRB Junior World Championship underway at QBE Stadium in North Harbour on Sunday.
Two of the four captains are no stranger to winning semi-finals with Handre Pollard part of the Junior Boks side to win the title on home soil in 2012 and England’s Callum Braley a member of the first northern hemisphere team to lift the coveted trophy.
They will both hope to use that experience when South Africa face hosts New Zealand for the second time in the tournament – having won 33-24 in round two – and England face Ireland, a side they beat 33-9 in the Under 20 Six Nations earlier this year.
“Mainly in the semi-final if you make one mistake it could cost the game and your position in the tournament – that is the cruelty of the knockout stages I guess,” explained Braley, who will start the semi-final on the bench with Maro Itoje assuming the captaincy.
“Everyone is a bit nervous, one mistake could cost the game.
“It is important not to go into the game and go into your shell, you still need to express yourself as obviously you need to score some points to win the game. It’s important we don’t go into our shell and we play the brand of rugby that we want to play.”
Ireland have bounced back well from the opening defeat to Six Nations Grand Slam winners France to beat both Wales and Fiji with a bonus point to top Pool B and guarantee their best ever finish at a Junior World Championship.
“Hopefully we can do Ireland proud and move onto the final,” said captain Jack O’Donoghue. “England have a big physical pack but hopefully we can match them up front. It is going to be a blow for blow match I think and defence is going to be key.”
The other semi-final has plenty of traditional rivalry as well with Anton Lienert-Brown assuming the captaincy after Simon Hickey was ruled out of the tournament with an ankle injury and revealing the motivation to “do our country proud”.
“We managed to sneak through to the semis, which we are really excited about and really want to make the most of,” admitted the centre, whose side progressed as the best runner-up after Wales did them a favour by beating France and New Zealand then beat Scotland.
That preserved New Zealand’s record of never having failed to reach a JWC final, but Lienert-Brown knows that they have to make a significant improvement from their pool match when South Africa dominated up front and were simply too powerful for the hosts.
“They really controlled the game, they controlled the tempo and we are really looking to speed it up this time, play it into our hands and play what New Zealand rugby is good at.
“I think it just comes down to attitude, the boys are really motivated to get justice back on the South Africans and make our country proud. That is probably the biggest lesson, but also we have taken a lot of little things that we can get better at in this game.”
Pollard has experienced both sides of a semi-final, victory over Argentina in 2012 and then the pain of a last-gasp loss to Wales in France last year. The fly half, who is the leading point scorer in the tournament after the pool stages, is eager to enjoy the happier emotions on Sunday evening.
“I think we are just going to take confidence out of that game [against New Zealand],” admitted Pollard.
“We proved to ourselves that we can win against them in New Zealand but I think it is going to be a different kind of game, I think they are going to be much more up for it in the semi-finals. We know the crowd is going to be behind them so it is going to be a tough game.
“Once you get into the final we all know on the day it is who wants it the most. We have just got to go out in the semi-final, be clinical, I think that is the main thing, and be productive, getting points every time we get down in their territory.”
While the semi-finals will be dominating the headlines, there are four other ‘semi-finals’ taking place on Sunday across QBE Stadium and ECOLight Stadium in Pukekohe to determine the matches for fifth to 12th places on the final day.
For Italy, Argentina, Scotland and Fiji the stakes are just as high as the quartet bidding to reach the final because for those that win on Sunday their place in next year’s tournament in Italy will be confirmed, leaving the others to sweat over relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Argentina will be disappointed to find themselves in this bracket given their pre-tournament expectations and face Fiji, another side still seeking their first victory in the tournament. Italy will then face Scotland, a side they beat 32-13 during the Six Nations.
Wales and France will come face to face for the second time in the space of a week in the final match at Pukekohe with Les Bleuets eager to avenge the 13-3 loss they suffered on Tuesday which ended their hopes of a place in the semi-finals.
In the opening match at QBE Stadium, Australia – who missed out on the semi-finals on point differential to New Zealand – will face a Samoan side that impressed during the pool stages and gave both their hosts and South Africa scares.