The climax of the pool stages is sure to be one not to miss after the upsets seen so far at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2016 in Manchester with Ireland, hosts England and Argentina leading the way as the only unbeaten sides after two rounds.
The equation for them is simple, win and their dreams of lifting the distinctive trophy on 25 June remain alive. Lose and they could miss out on the semi-finals altogether with teams queueing up behind them to snatch top spot in the pool or the best runner-up spot.
For the chasing pack, including defending champions New Zealand and 2012 winners South Africa, a bonus-point victory will be the target to give themselves the best possible chance of making the semi-finals.
If two sides finish level on points in the same pool then the head to head result will be the criteria used to split them, but the battle for the best runners-up spot will be determined by point differential first and then, if that does not deliver the last semi-finalist, try difference.
The matches on Wednesday will see Argentina tackle Japan in the opening encounter at AJ Bell Stadium, followed by New Zealand’s battle with Wales and then England’s tussle with Australia. Over at the Manchester City Academy, Scotland and Italy will get proceedings underway before Ireland tackle Georgia and South Africa lock horns with France.
POOL A: IRELAND V GEORGIA
With his side on the verge of a second semi-final appearance in three years, Ireland coach Nigel Carolan has run the changes from the historic win over New Zealand, retaining just two players in try-scorer Greg Jones and winger Hugo Keenan.
However, he certainly isn’t underestimating the threat Georgia pose to their semi-final aspirations, especially not after the way they gave Six Nations Grand Slam winners Wales a fright in round two.
“We’re in a good position with two wins from two so far in this competition but we now have a big test against what is a very physical Georgian side” he insisted. “They pushed Wales all the way at the weekend so they will be looking to build on that performance and will be confident coming into this match.
“The nature of the tournament means that games come thick and fast so it’s important that we use our whole squad. There are a number of players who will be starting their first U20 World Championship match so we’re looking forward to seeing them in action.”
One interesting fact about the Ireland starting line-up is that it features four players who are the sons of former internationals, covering both nations with prop Vakh Abdaladze’s father Nika having played two tests for Georgia in 1997 as part of the RWC 1999 qualifying process. The other three all wore the green of Ireland in the fathers of captain Paul Kiernan, scrum-half Niall Saunders and winger Terry Kennedy. Georgia, buoyed by their performance against Wales, have largely kept the same starting XV, making only three changes with the most significant of them being the return of captain Vasil Lobzhanidze at scrum-half with Gela Aprasdize, who kicked all their points last Saturday, dropping back to bench.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND V WALES
New Zealand have never failed to reach the semi-finals in U20 Championship history, and on the five times they have reached the final they have come out on top, but the loss to an inspired Irish side on Saturday has put them on the back foot.
They will be eager to reassert their title credentials, but so too will Wales who, as Six Nations Grand Slam winners, had high hopes for this tournament but have lost to Ireland and only scraped by tournament debutants Georgia 10-9 at the weekend.
The two sides have played some memorable encounters before, New Zealand racked up their highest ever tally in a match against the Welsh in the 2011 pool stages, winning 92-0. But the Welsh got their revenge a year later, triumphing 9-6 in muddy conditions in Stellenbosch to hand New Zealand a first defeat in the competition’s history, ending a 21-match winning run.
Throw in the fact that the senior sides are facing each other in New Zealand at the moment – the All Blacks winning the first test 39-21 at Eden Park last weekend – and U20 winger Keelan Giles has flown out to join the Wales squad and we could be set for an enthralling encounter.
New Zealand coach Scott Robertson hopes his side have learnt the lessons from the Ireland loss when they face another northern hemisphere side, one he won’t be underestimating at all.
“Wales always step up. For a lot of these teams, when they play New Zealand, they play their best, so we are expecting Wales to come out firing,” admitted Robertson. “It is a knock-out game. Lose and you miss out on the semi-finals. We have taken a lot of learnings from the Georgian and Irish games and are still in the hunt at this tournament.”
With that in mind, Robertson and his coaching team, who have reverted to the back three that scored five of their tries on day one against Georgia, with Jonah Lowe and Caleb Makene returning to the wings and Shaun Stevenson filling the full-back jersey once again, have given the players a simple message.
“We have a chance to make the semi-finals – it’s in our hands now. Get out there, enjoy yourself and believe in our systems. From there the scoreboard takes care of itself.”
Wales have also largely reverted to their starting XV from day one, the two changes enforced with Giles now in New Zealand and second-row Adam Beard serving a nine-week suspension. That means a new front row and half-back pairing from the narrow win over Georgia.
“Weare looking forward to playing New Zealand on Wednesday to bounce back from a disappointing performance against Georgia on Saturday,” said Wales coach Jason Strange. “Georgia played well but we allowed the game to be dominated by the set-piece which played into their hands. The game gave players opportunities to play and allowed us to face another style of rugby. We know what kind of game New Zealand like to play and we are relishing the chance to meet their challenge.”
POOL B: SCOTLAND V ITALY
Scotland may, mathematically at least if the form book is completely thrown out the window, not be out of semi-final contention but they could just as easily find themselves battling to avoid relegation in the knockout stages if they lose to Azzurrini at Manchester City Academy Stadium.
The Scots have four points from their first ever win over Australia on day one, but were Italy to avenge their 24-14 loss in the Six Nations and match that tally, it would be they who finish third in Pool B by virtue of the head to head rule.
Scotland coach John Dalziel has made a number of changes to the squad beaten 44-0 by England last time out, with Adam Hastings returning at fly-half after sitting out that defeat with concussion, and test-capped Zander Fagerson at prop.
“There is no denying that this is a huge game for us, with a lot resting on the result,” admitted coach John Dalziel. “After the disappointment of the loss to England, we’ve refocused quickly and trained well in preparation for tomorrow’s game against what will be a physical Italian side, who possess a strong set-piece.
“We’ve got a lot of experience in our side for this game, and we’re hoping that this will come to the fore and revitalise the team as we chase an all-important victory, which would see us record two pool stage wins for the first time ever in this competition.”
Italy have produced strong first-half displays against both England and Australia, leading the latter at the break on Saturday, but they will need to produce an 80-minute performance if they were to taste victory and the return of captain Davide Fragnito and winger Luca Sperandio will help their cause.
POOL B: ENGLAND V AUSTRALIA
Twelve months ago England reached the semi-finals as the best runner-up up at Australia’s expense on point differential, the second year in a row that the young Australians have fallen short on that criteria after New Zealand edged them out in 2014.
Throw in the fact that England won the meeting between the senior teams in Brisbane last weekend and the Australians will certainly not lack for motivation in a match which they must win and finish level on points, or better, with their hosts to claim top spot.
England, though, won’t want to miss out on the semi-finals on home soil something that has happened to the host five times in the Championship’s history with South Africa in 2012 the only host to lift the title.
Coach Martin Haag is not looking beyond this pool decider with Australia and wants his players to find “that clinical edge” in all areas of their game, not just attack, after two comfortable wins over Italy and Scotland so far.
“This is an opportunity to play against a world-class team in Australia and to test ourselves against their class and quality of opposition,” Haag said. “It’s about this group playing and expressing themselves.
“We are not focusing too much on other people or beyond the pool stages. It’s about the here and now and trying to get a good result against Australia and we know that we have to play at the highest level in order to do that.”
Australia will also have a familiar look about them with coach Adrian Thompson, hoping to reach the semi-finals for the first time as coach after those agonising near-misses, has brought second-row Lukhan Lealaiaulolo-Tui and flanker Ikapote Tupai into the pack and moved Sione Tuipulotu in one to inside-centre with Liam Jurd filling the void.
POOL C: ARGENTINA V JAPAN
Los Pumitas have only reached the semi-finals once before, back in 2012 when current Pumas Pablo Matera and Santiago Cordero starred for them in South Africa, but victory against Japan will see them progress as pool winners once again.
The two sides have only met once before in U20 Championship history with Argentina winning a high-scoring ninth place play-off 38-31 last year, but while Los Pumitas have used their renowned passion to inspire victories over South Africa and France, the Japanese have struggled somewhat.
Japan will again have six players in their starting line-up who have already played test rugby in the recent Asia Rugby Championship, among them Ataata Moeakiola who scored a hat-trick on day one against South Africa playing on the wing but will start again at fly-half.
The inclusion of Keiichi Kaneko and Ryo Inoue, at hooker and blindside flanker respectively, are the only two changes for Japan and Argentina coach Nicolas Fernandez Lobbe has also largely kept faith with the side that beat South Africa for the first time on Saturday.
Two of Argentina’s try-scorers against France in flanker Bautista Stavile Bravin and scrum-half Lautaro Bazan Velez have earned their first starts of the tournament among four changes to run-on XV, one of them positional.
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA V FRANCE
South Africa coach Dawie Theron, in his last tournament as coach, has made a number of changes to his starting line-up for the “all or nothing game” against France at Manchester City Academy Stadium.
The Junior Springboks know a bonus point victory will give them the best chance of making the semi-finals after their surprise loss to Argentina last time out, and even then, that might be enough depending what happens in other matches.
Many of the changes are in the backline with a third new half-back pairing of the tournament as Embrose Papier comes in with Manie Libbok returning to fly-half from full-back, swapping places again with Curwin Bosch, the leading point-scorer in the tournament so far.
“The changes are partly due to player management, but we also feel that this is the best team for the challenge against France,” admitted Theron. “We need to go out there and get the bonus point, and we believe this team is the best equipped to get us that result. This is an all or nothing game for us.
“France have a solid set piece and they like to run the ball, so we have to challenge them up front and shut down their space. For us in particular, our defence and breakdown play has to be effective. The players have been working very hard this week to improve the areas of our game that let us down and they are positive that we can secure a semi-final berth.”
His French counterpart Olivier Magne has retained only seven of the starting XV who beat Japan, including the impressive centre Damian Penaud. Two players returning include captain Clement Castets and Antoine Dupont, the scrum-half having scored two tries off the bench against the Japanese.
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