England booked their spot in the Junior World Cup semi-finals with a strong 26-20 victory over South Africa in Padova, Italy. The win means that England will move forward to face France, who were shock victors over Australia in their final pool match.
That France victory pushed Australia back into second place in the group, and with their superior points difference over South Africa, the Australians moved into the semi-finals by virtue of having the best record of the second placed teams. The reward for their endeavours will be a clash with the Baby All Blacks, who remain hot favourites for the tournament.
Such is the cut-throat nature of this competition, despite both teams’ 100% records, they both approached this match knowing that a loss would leave their tournament hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads. To the victor the spoils, to the runners up the hope that they can grab the title of best second placed team and with it a semi-final berth.
England had fizzled at times, yet their play in the competition had reflected that of a dis-jointed side struggling for rhythm and form. Following up a battling win over Ireland with a nervy victory over Scotland, only improved by some late tries, England coach Rob Hunter re-introduced several key faces for the clash with South Africa.
Captain Alex Gray returned at number 8 while George Ford was restored to fly half in place of Owen Farrell, who duly shifted along to inside centre. There were also spots in the pack for the returning Mako Vunipola, Mikey Haywood, Henry Thomas and Charlie Matthews. In the back-line both Andy Short and Ben Ransom took places on the wing and full back respectively.
A rousing Martin Johnson speech rallied the team shortly before kick-off and England duly responded with renewed vigour and verve as they took the game to the Baby Boks. George Ford had earlier given England the lead through a well-taken penalty, but the fly half was to go one better as he secured a great turnover to feed Elliot Daly who rounded his man before going over in the corner.
England looked dominant in the early stages, however, and quite against the run of play, South Africa hit back from a rather fortuitous break at the line-out. After kicking a penalty to the corner, South Africa failed to gather their own throw however after bobbling off the shoulder of their jumper, the ball fell into the grateful arms of flanker Nizaam Carr who went over unopposed.
The conversion was missed, and a Ford penalty furthered England’s lead to 11-5, however two Johan Goosen penalties drew South Africa level at the break.
If it was South Africa who left the pitch at half time on the ascendancy, it was England who immediately regained it as some good hands put Alex Gray over in the corner to steal back the lead. Ford again missed the conversion from a difficult angle and a further Goosen penalty cut England’s lead to just two. South Africa were slowly drawing themselves back into the match, and it took some incredible last ditch defending to keep them out.
Ford and Goosen traded further penalties, before Christian Wade scored a brilliant solo effort that gave England some breathing space. Wade, a surprise omission from the starting line-up, gathered the ball with little space on the wing before outstripping the cover defence, brushing off some poor defence and cutting inside to go over underneath the posts. Wade’s initial acceleration to break clear was exceptional, and his step inside to aid Ford’s later conversion showed great foresight in the young wing.
Wade’s try, in all likelihood, looked like securing the game for England. Ford’s conversion brought the score to 26-17 with five minutes to play. However drama was to follow. As South Africa pushed for a score, an indiscretion at the break down by Mako Vunipola led to the sin binning of the prop and Goosen gladly kicked the resulting penalty.
As Ford once more struggled with the re-start, probably the only blight on his evening, South Africa stormed back. But again, England’s defence was more than a match. Some tremendous tackling from Guy Armitage and George Ford put attacks to a halt, but it was Joe Launchbury who was at the forefront. The burly Wasps lock was phenomenal across the field and twice cut down South African attacks with brilliant cover tackles.
A last minute line-out from England found it’s man and the final whistle sent Rob Hunter’s men into elation.
A delighted Alex Gray reflected on the match: “It was definitely one of the hardest matches I’ve played in, especially those last five minutes. A few of the boys pulled out some amazing last-ditch try saving tackles and that just sums up the spirit within the camp.”
“France are up next for us and even though we beat them in the 6 Nations a few months back that counts for very little. It’s a different ball game out here and they’re in good form, but so are we,” added the England captain.
England will progress to the France game on Wednesday full of confidence and hopeful that they can secure a place in the Junior World Cup final.