England stand between New Zealand and a fourth successive IRB Junior World Championship title after both sides came through tough battles with France and Australia respectively at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso, Italy, on Wednesday.
Runners up in 2008 and 2009, England were the first to book their place in Sunday’s final after digging deep to overcome France 33-18 in a semi final that was as tight and tense as expected. Tries from Christian Wade, the outstanding George Ford, Ben Ransom and captain Alex Gray saw England to victory, but they were made to work hard by France for a ninth consecutive victory under coach Rob Hunter this year.
New Zealand were not given an easy ride by Australia in the other semi final, despite a seemingly one-sided looking 37-7 scoreline, with their opponents a far tougher prospect than that beaten 62-17 by the Baby Blacks in last year’s final in Argentina.
Australia opened the scoring through Chris Kuridrani after starving the champions of possession early on, but with Gareth Anscombe directing play New Zealand responded with 37 unanswered points to make it 19 matches unbeaten in the Championship’s history.
Away from the semi finals, Fiji sprung the surprise of the day by beating Wales 34-20 to earn a fifth place play-off against South Africa, the 57-15 conquerors of Ireland, and with it their best ever finish.
Scotland, meanwhile, picked up their first win of the tournament by beating Tonga 30-11 and they will now face Argentina for ninth after they held on to beat hosts Italy 12-8.
A fourth successive defeat at JWC 2011 means that Italy and Tonga now face each other in a must-win match with the loser relegated to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy for 2012 to be replaced by Samoa.
England U20 captain Alex Gray said: “To be involved in any final is a massive honour, the boys have worked so hard to get to where we are. We started out as a group back in September with the ultimate aim of winning both the 6 Nations and the Junior World Championships. We won the 6 Nations back in March and now we’ve got a chance of winning the JWC.
“The semi-final against France was tough, as we always knew it would be. They gave us a good game in the 6 Nations and they were only going to get better. We’re delighted to pull the win out of the bag though, they made it a bit nervy for us at times, but fortunately we held out for the win.
“We can’t wait for the final now – New Zealand have an aura about them but they definitely aren’t unbeatable. They sweat, they bleed – they’re human, so if we go out there with the right game plan then I’m confident we can give them a run for their money. A final is a one off game, it’s all or nothing rugby and we’ve got a chance.
“It will be my last game as an Under 20 player and I expect it will be pretty emotional. It’s been a long run, and a few of us have played together since we were with the Under 16s so it just gives us an added incentive to pull out all the stops when we play the Baby Blacks.”
Leicester Tigers fly half George Ford: “It was a really tough game against the French, but we prepared well and executed our game plan pretty well. France are a physical side who have an air of unpredictability so it was really pleasing to get the four tries and secure the win. They caught us out on a couple of occasions which made it close but we pulled through in the end.
“It was nice to go over for my try – I don’t get many, but the phase play in the build up was excellent. We’ve got players who don’t know when to give up and the forwards looked after the ball very well and things just opened up for me, but there’s no way I’m taking any of the credit – it was a massive team effort.
“We know that were in for a tough match against New Zealand in the final, but anyone can beat anyone on their day so we’ll prepare as well as we can and look to produce our best rugby. It will be our last game together as a group and we want to give it absolutely everything.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing in the Junior World Championship. It’s a valuable experience and to be able to test yourself against the best players from across the world will stand us all in good stead in the future.”
Saracens prop Mako Vunipola: “We went into the game knowing that France would be up for it, and they were. We played them in the 6 Nations but they upped their game for the semi-final and gave us a scare, but overall our hard work paid off.
“The lead changed hands on a few occasions and maybe they surprised us a little bit, but we knew that they would come at us for the first 50 minutes and we had to weather the storm. Our defence held out and our attackers were clinical when it mattered, so I think we deserved it in the end.
“New Zealand in the final will be a huge test for all of us, but they’re beatable – every team is beatable, no one has a right to win a game. It’s our last game together as a group so we will be leaving absolutely everything out on the pitch and hopefully that will be enough, we’re just going to go for it.”
London Irish centre Guy Armitage: “It was a great honour to be named in the starting line up for the semi, it was my first start so it was a bit of a baptism of fire but I enjoyed every minute of it. Having played France in the 6 Nations we weren’t totally in the dark about what they were about, but it was important not to get complacent and I think we showed real professionalism with our performance, we got the job done and we look ahead to the final now.
“New Zealand did very well in their group stages, but Argentina and Australia have both given them good games, so we’ll be studying the videos and plotting a game plan to try and beat them – it’s a huge game for us and there’s a lot of excitement in the camp.
“I got a good luck text from Delon (Armitage) before the game yesterday which was a nice touch, and I’m pleased for him to be named in the initial training squad ahead of the seniors World Cup, but for now I’m focusing on our final!”