The home nations may have been missing but the latest junior tournament in Portugal still provided some excellent rugby. Francisco Isaac reports on the action
The blue, white and red tricolour flew proudly in Portugal as France won the European U18 Championship. It was their second successive title and their seventh since 2004, and in front of an almost capacity crowd in the Estádio Universitário de Lisboa they could not have been more emphatic, finishing a brilliant campaign with a 42-0 rout of Georgia in the final.
Georgia had started proceeedings by seeing off Romania 49-10 in an opening game marred by heavy rain for the first 40 minutes. When the skies cleared, Les Lelos started to flow.
In the semi-finals, they faced a courageous and vibrant Portuguese side that had thrashed Germany 64-5, running in ten tries to one. An excellent match between Lobos and Lelos ensued. The Portuguese side dominated territory and possession in the second half but failed to gain the points their pressure deserved, and the Georgians came through 29-10. No 8 Arsen Machaladze and left-wing Giorgi Narimanidze were a dynamic pair, achieving four tries between them – three of them by the burly back-rower.
On the other side of the draw, France were imperious, bagging 23 tries and conceding only two (against Spain) on their way to the final. Lucas Tauzin, Romain Ntamack and Nathan Decron were three to catch the eye, combining pace, swift handling and physical supremacy. Neither Spain nor Belgium had the ammunition to stop the Les Bleuets, who powered to scores of 56-14 and 62-3 against Spain and Belgium respectively.
In the final, it was soon apparent that the Georgians had little chance against the French, who dominated in the scrum and lineout, whilst securing a steady supply of quick ruck ball. Tauzin crossed for a try in the opening minute and Les Lelos went on to concede 15 penalties against their classy opponents. France may have failed in the Six Nations in recent years but their juniors continue to look very impressive.
For the first time, Portugal won the right to stand on the podium after winning the bronze-medal match 15-10 against Belgium, scoring two tries to one. In the Diables Noirs (Black Devils) side, Hugo Francq was always a problem for the Portuguese defence, breaking the line on five occasions and scoring one try.
For the relegation game, Romania and Russia faced off with no one wanting to leave the elite Championship. The Russians made fewer handling mistakes, overcoming the Romanian backs in the second half for a 12-0 win that demotes Romania to the second-tier Trophy competition next year.
And who will get the chance to be in the Championship next year? As things stand, Poland. The Poles edged the Netherlands 9-8 in the Trophy final, but we still don’t know if England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy will be back next year since they failed to participate this year due to a controversial relegation/promotion dispute (Scotland would have dropped to the Trophy division having lost to Ireland in 2015).
Here are the main discussion points from the Championship:
- Romania looked off the pace, with their handling below average and the forwards lacking the usual physicality associated with their country’s rugby.
- The absence of the home nations must be addressed – European rugby needs strong competitions to deliver future players to the senior squads.
- The Portuguese organisation was excellent. Sixteen teams, comprising 400 players (and 60 staff members), put ‘their boots on the pitch’. A big thumbs-up for the organisers, Move Sports, supported by the Portuguese Federation and Rugby Europe.
- The attendances were really encouraging, with some matches played in front of packed stands. The Dutch, Portuguese and French fans didn’t stop cheering for a single moment!
- Much of the rugby was played at a quick pace, with good handlling and creativity. There were 69 tries and 345 points scored, giving spectators extra motivation to stay within the game.
Championship final: France 42-0 Georgia
Bronze final: Portugal 15-10 Belgium
Fifth-sixth place: Spain 29-10 Germany
Relegation play-off: Russia 12-0 Romania
Trophy final/promotion: Poland 9-8 Netherlands
Player of the Tournament: Romain Ntamack (France)
Revelation of the Tournament: Manuel C Pinto (Portugal)
Leading Try-scorer: Lucas Tauzin (four)