Anglo-Welsh unity might be at an all-time high on Saturday morning when the British and Irish Lions take on Australia, but just hours later that unity will be long forgotten as England U20s take on their Welsh counterparts in the final of the Junior World Championships. The meeting of these two teams marks the first time in the competition’s history that two Northern Hemisphere sides will contest age grade rugby’s ultimate prize.
England have made it to the final three times previously, but have lost on each occasion to New Zealand, who they impressively knocked out at the semi-final stage this year. Their most recent loss in the final came in 2011, when the England side boasted the talents of Mako Vunipola, Christian Wade and Owen Farrell to name but a few, and England’s next generation will be boosted by the knowledge that three current Lions were in exactly the same position as them, just two years previously.
Aside from a 20 minute spell against South Africa in the group stage when England’s players failed to turn up, they have been in exceptional form, beating the hosts France 30-6, before a 31-24 loss to South Africa, where the side produced a valiant comeback, but couldn’t quite get over the final hurdle. England’s fate was then out of their own hands, but they ensured they gave themselves the best chance of qualifying by defeating USA 109-0 in a record-setting game, and fortunately sealed the best runner up spot, earning them a semi-final against their greatest rival at this level, New Zealand. In perhaps England’s greatest victory at age-grade rugby, they dominated New Zealand throughout the game, and emerged with a 33-21 victory, booking themselves into an all Northern Hemisphere final.
Player to watch: Luke Cowan-Dickie
The Exeter Chief has an extremely bright future ahead of him, and so often looks a class apart at this level. More often seen at loosehead, Cowan-Dickie has been playing at hooker this year, and the transition has looked seamless from the outside. His lineout throwing has been on point at this tournament, but perhaps his most valuable asset has been his ball carrying, where he has consistently broken the gain line, earning England important ground every time he gets his hands on the ball. Arguably England’s form player of the tournament, another colossal game from Cowan-Dickie will go a long way to helping his side secure their first Junior World Championship trophy.
Wales were rewarded for their excellent third-placed finish at the 2012 event with a relatively easy pool, featuring Samoa, Scotland and Argentina, but handled their opposition professionally, and emerged from the group undefeated. They set off at a canter, beating Samoa 42-3, before a much closer 26-21 victory over Scotland, and finally beat Argentina 25-20, in what was a ‘winner takes all’ match, with both teams sitting pretty on two wins from two games. There were fears that Wales would be undercooked for their semi-final meeting with South Africa, and although they trailed heading into the dying minutes, a last minute try from Ashley Evans, and conversion from Sam Davies, meant that Wales’ endeavour and performance was justly rewarded with a narrow 18-17 win.
Player to watch: Sam Davies
The fly-half has been instrumental in Wales’ successes so far in the tournament, and will again have to be at his best if his side hope to see off England’s challenge. Davies looks to be extremely composed for a young fly-half, kicking well under pressure, distributing efficiently to a talented back line and generally controlling a game very well. With Welsh opinion splintered over Rhys Priestland, Dan Biggar and James Hook, do not be too surprised if Davies’ name is mentioned in relation to the senior fly-half jersey in a couple of years time, especially if he gets more playing time with the Ospreys next season.
England arguably have the edge at the set piece, and if their tight five can gain an advantage over their opponents early in the game, it could become England’s game to lose. That being said, Wales have a number of difference makers, including Davies, Ellis Jenkins and Jordan Williams, and they’ve developed significantly as a squad since their Six Nations loss to England. The game will most likely come down to who deals with the occasion better, and given the turnover in players at age-grade rugby, that is anyone’s guess. England by 3.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)