They were also-rans in this year's Under 20 Six Nations, but now England and Ireland are going head-to-head in Saturday's World Rugby U20 Championship final. We talked to Will Evans and Jacob Stockdale ahead of the big game.
Ireland’s Under 20 side have already made history this month, becoming the first team from their nation to reach the final of the World Rugby U20 Championship. On Saturday they are aiming to extend that legend by another chapter and beat England in the final in Manchester to lift the trophy for the first time. “That’s exactly what we are hoping,” says their full-back Jacob Stockdale. “If we do it, we will be making more history.”
Clearly, England have other ideas. Their 2016 team are attempting to match the achievement of the 2013 and 2014 sides who won the World Championship. This is the fourth time in succession England have reached the U20 final, but their openside, Will Evans, says that record is more a source of pride than pressure.
“We came into the tournament knowing we have a strong squad, with quite a few players who had already played Aviva Premiership rugby, so we want to emulate those other teams.”
Ireland’s first World Championship opponents were Wales and the men in green found themselves 17-0 down after 20 minutes before fighting back to win 26-20, thanks partly to two tries from 6ft 3in Stockdale.
“It was a rough start against Wales, but we have got a good team ethos and we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game,” Stockdale says. “We went 17 points down and I got a bit worried but the guys did brilliantly to fight back and win.
“It is always nice to score but I can’t take too much credit for those two tries because they were both set up by Conor O’Brien.”
Next, Ireland took on New Zealand and upset the odds by winning 33-24. “We felt we had nothing to lose because no Irish team had ever beaten a New Zealand team so we went into it thinking ‘let’s have a go and see how it goes’ and it went pretty well,” laughs Stockdale.
The full-back was rested for the final pool match against Georgia, which Ireland won 35-7. “Nigel (Carolan, the coach) made 13 changes for the Georgia game and we are lucky we have so much depth that we can do that.”
England started this World Championship with a 48-10 win over Italy, then smashed Scotland 44-0, with Evans scoring one of the tries on his England U20 debut. “To nil a side in international rugby is quite an achievement,” Evans says. “It shows the work we have put in on our defensive systems and the attack was quite promising as well.”
Their final group game was a fiery, feisty encounter with Australia and England won 17-13 after going 7-0 down to a try inside the first minute. “After they scored that early try, Wacker (skipper Jack Walker) brought us under the sticks and said ‘don’t worry’ and we kept our heads cool,” recalls Evans.
“We went toe to toe in that match and no one was going to blink. The nerves were jangling for a bit but after we got our noses in front we showed the character of the squad with how we didn’t let them back into the game.”
Ireland were up first in the semi-finals, taking on Argentina and Stockdale scored a try after seven minutes and another after 28 to help his team race to a 21-0 lead. “We thought because Argentina had beaten the French and South Africa in the pool it was going to be a really tight game but we came out absolutely firing and knew what we had to do and it paid off really well,” Stockdale says.
Ireland kept their foot on the throttle and closed out a 37-7 win, then settled back to see who would win the other semi-final, between England and South Africa.
England made a superb start while South Africa were all at sixes and sevens, and the hosts led 26-3 at one stage, before easing up for a final score of 39-17 to England.
“We played some outstanding rugby in the first half but the first 20 minutes of the second half wasn’t good enough,” says Evans.
Neither Ireland nor, especially, England looked like they were heading for the World Championship final when they finished third and fifth respectively in this year’s U20 Six Nations. Stockdale, who started two of Ireland’s spring matches, says: “We have reduced the mistakes we have made and that has been a massive part of how we have improved.”
Evans didn’t make England’s Six Nations squad, but he agrees that their World Cup squad is stronger thanks to the addition of players like Harry Mallinder and Johnny Williams who were on Premiership duty in February and March and adds: “Martin Haag and the new coaching staff must take a lot of credit for turning things around so quickly.”
Ireland beat England 26-20 during that tournament, but with both teams having been on such excellent form during the World Championship, that result has little relevance. For England, this week is all about learning lessons from the way they let South Africa back into the game during the second half of the semi-final, and pushing on to win the final, while Ireland are trying to contain their excitement and produce another vintage performance.
“We are impressed with Ireland,” says Evans. “We have been doing a lot of research on them this week. I don’t think we are favourites. We have put together some good rugby but so have Ireland so it will be interesting. I think it will be a great game for the neutral.
“It’s pretty electric in camp at the moment. It’s a pleasure to be involved.”
Stockdale says: “There are not many experiences which can compete with how this has gone so far. I am incredibly excited. No Irish team has got this far in the tournament before. Watching England play, they are a really, really good team and they are never an easy team to beat. If we can win it will be incredible.”
Saturday’s U20 World Championship fixtures:
12 noon – Italy v Japan (11th place playoff)
2.15pm – Georgia v France (9th place playoff)
2.30pm – Argentina v South Africa (3rd place playoff)
4.30pm – Scotland v Wales (7th place playoff)
4.45pm – Australia v New Zealand (5th place playoff)
7pm – Ireland v England (final).