Top teams France and Ireland prepare for Under-20 Championship final showdown

Top teams France and Ireland prepare for Under-20 Championship final showdown
James Nicholson of Ireland and Imad Khan of South Africa race to the ball before it rolls over the dead-ball line during their U20 Championship semifinal at Athlone Stadium on 9 July 2023. (Photo: Roger Sedres / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

France and Ireland have been imperious in the Under-20 Championship so far. They are deserved finalists, having finished top of their pools and gone through undefeated.

France and Ireland have been the stand-out teams in the Under-20 Championship, and they will meet for the second time this year in Friday’s final at Athlone Stadium. In the Six Nations under-20 competition earlier this year, Ireland edged the French 33-31.

Ireland flyhalf Sam Prendergast was the hero on that occasion, striking a 77th-minute penalty to win the match for his side at home.

Pendergrast made a slow start to the World Championships but found his best form against South Africa. He scored 11 points in his team’s 31-12 win over the Junior Boks, with a flawless display off the kicking tee.

Ireland’s only hiccup came in their opening match when they drew 34-34 with England in their Pool B encounter.

“I think the big thing for us now is we’re in a World Cup final, which is exactly where we wanted to be. We’ve talked about preparing for these moments,” Ireland under-20 coach Richie Murphy said.

Baptiste Jauneau of France sprints down the touchline with Chandler Cunningham-South of England in pursuit during their U20 Championship semifinal at Athlone Stadium on 9 July 2023. (Photo: Roger Sedres / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

“I suppose in the second half (against South Africa) we probably put a little bit more of ourselves out onto the pitch in the way that we’re capable of playing the game. It’s nice to be in a final and just be true to ourselves and play the game we’ve played all year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Six Nations preparation gave northern hemisphere sides edge in dominating under-20 championship

“We’re in a really good position. Obviously got through the Six Nations and England had a right crack at us at the start of the competition, but we’ve managed to get out of that with a draw.

“So, we’re going into this with plenty of confidence. We’re in a good place as a team.”

Ireland have not had it easy off the field, having suffered the death of Greig Oliver, father of one of their players, Jack, in a paragliding accident on the eve of their final group game against Fiji.

“Greig’s passing was particularly difficult,” Murphy said.

“Jack was in the group with us until [last] Wednesday evening when he left. It was a difficult time for the boys but Jack sent his support and so did Fiona, Greig’s wife.”

“So, I know they’re at home and we’re really delighted to be able to bring him back something because no matter what happens in the final we’ll be going back with something for Jack.”

Ferocious France

France are no walkovers, however. In fact, they have been dominant in all of their matches so far, topping Pool A with three bonus-point wins.

Their 35-14 win against six-time Under-20 Championship winners New Zealand was particularly impressive on match day two.

France finished second at the under-20 Six Nations, with their defeat to Ireland the only blemish so far this year.

France players celebrate after winning their semifinal clash with England. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

The French pack has blown every team away in the under-20 contest, with 150kg lock-forward Posolo Tuilagi particularly hard to stop on a rampaging run.

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France showed some susceptibility in defence against England in their 52-31 semifinal win, after falling 17-0 behind after 17 minutes, but fought back gallantly to defeat their European counterparts.

Les Bleus will have to be at their best for 80 minutes against a skilful and mature Irish side to capture their third successive Under-20 Championship.

The final kicks off at 7pm on Friday.

Home run

Before the final, losing semifinalists South Africa and England will clash in the third- and fourth-place playoff.

For Junior Bok coach Bafana Nhleko it’s an opportunity to give players an opportunity at this level.

“We said at the start of the tournament that we wanted to give everyone a taste of Test match rugby,” he said. “We did that, but the injuries and the result against Ireland have now given us another opportunity to expand on that, which means we will have some fresh bodies in the squad to face England. We lost Hakeem (Kunene), JF van Heerden and Ghudian van Rheenen due to injury, while Neil is back after missing two games due to head injury assessment protocols.

“We are sad to lose those three players, but at the same time happy for someone like Hennie [Sieberhagen]. He has trained with us with great enthusiasm even after being told that he did not make the squad, and it is great for him to have that attitude rewarded.

“We still have a lot to play for. We looked at the way England play and planned accordingly; we believe we have named a squad that will suit us in what we want to achieve.”

Ruadhan Quinn of Ireland celebrates their semifinal win over South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

Inside centre Damian Markus will earn his second start for the Junior Springboks against England on Friday, while the SA U20 head coach was also forced to make a few changes due to injuries for their final showdown.

Markus started the matchday two game against Italy where the hosts lost 34-26, while Kunene (fullback, shoulder), Van Heerden (lock, shoulder) and Van Reenen (flanker, concussion) were ruled out of the final match.

Regan Izaks will start at fullback, as he did against Italy in Paarl, while Sieberhagen has been drafted into the squad to replace Van Reenen and will make his debut in the No 7 jersey. The former Paarl Gimnasium pupil was in the wider squad, but just missed out on final selection. He will now get a chance to show his mettle.

Tiaan Wessels, who made his debut against Italy, will earn a second cap at lock in place of Van Heerden, while Quewin Nortje (wing) and Neil le Roux (scrumhalf) will also start – having last done that against Italy – with Michael Annies and Imad Khan playing off the bench this time.

Nhleko also changed his props. Mawande Mdanda and Phatu Ganyane will pack down together, having last done so in the tournament opener against Georgia. On the bench, flanker Gcinokuhle Mdletshe will also see some action, having last played against Italy.

South Africa’s match against England starts at 4.30pm on Friday at Athlone Stadium. DM


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