The two deserving nations, France and Ireland, will battle it out for the Under-20 Rugby World Championship title on Friday.
Three of the four teams that competed in the semi-finals of the Under-20 Championship were from the northern hemisphere.
England, France and Ireland have had only one cumulative loss between them since the start of the tournament on June 24 – and that was when France beat England 52-31 in their semi-final match.
The only Southern Hemisphere side to reach the semi-finals was hosts South Africa – who were defeated 31-12 by Ireland on Sunday.
The Junior Bucks made it to the playoffs despite being tied on points, and an even smaller point difference, with Georgia – another Northern Hemisphere side. South Africa advanced due to winning the head-to-head match.
Southern Hemisphere teams have captured eight of the nine Men’s Rugby World Cups played. While the Under-20 Championship is much closer, with seven of the 12 editions played since 2008, claimed by the Southern Hemisphere (six by New Zealand and one by South Africa) and five by the Northern Hemisphere (three by England and two by France).
Northern Hemisphere’s comparative success at junior level is largely due to their investment in the age group system. An annual under-20 under-20 competition has been held since 2008 (there was an under-21 version for four years prior to that) in which players are tested against their age-mates prior to the under-20 tournament.
In comparison, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina often play their first competitive under-20 matches when the under-20 tournament is held annually.
The Junior Springboks played warm-up games against the club’s teams, in contrast to the Mattis, Hamiltons and False Bay.
The Junior Books dominated the first half of the semi-final against Ireland in all aspects but the scoreboard – trailing at half-time 7-0.
When Ireland gained momentum in the second half, they took all their chances, scoring 24 unanswered points between the 50th and 74th minute.
“[Ireland] “It was good value for them to win,” SA Under-20 coach Bafana Nelliko said after losing in the semi-finals.
“We need to be fair with them. But one of the things we’ve been talking about constantly and it’s quite clear we don’t make excuses is that some teams are better at playing under pressure because they’re in those tough situations.
“You take the first half, you take some of the games we played when we were really at the top and we did well, but there’s a certain time in any game where the pressure and how you deal with it is that.”
The Ireland Under-20s won the Six Nations Grand Slam this year and came into the Under-20 Championships with confidence.
“I’ve spoken to the Ireland coach (Ritchie Murphy), and 26 of the 30 here play in the Six Nations Grand Prix winning team,” added Nelijko.
“Some of the guys who are here were playing last year in the summer series, and I think half of their group.
“So, you can imagine they’ve always had 10, 12 caps maybe together, and that helps them in certain situations.
“But I think if we had been better that day, we would definitely have won too.”
The Junior Springboks spent the majority of the first half hour of the encounter in Ireland’s 22m, but poor execution near the whitewash disappointed them on a number of occasions.
Whereas when Ireland was on the rise, South Africa failed to handle the pressure.
“The biggest difficulty is once you deal with that pressure where teams are rushing at you, you need to get out,” said Nhliku.
“When your set pieces are under pressure, how do you deal with that? And we didn’t have that kind of preparation.
“But we are not looking for excuses in terms of international matches.”
Ireland under-20 boss Murphy has acknowledged the preparation the under-20 Six Nations have made for his players heading into the tournament.
“Obviously these guys are young guys, most of them have been out of school for a year or two,” he said. “The Six Nations gives us the opportunity to play a really high level competition and I think the competition is what really helps these players develop because they have learned in that time and over the course of the season these players have played five countries in the Six Nations and now four games in the [the under-20 Championship].
“[That’s] 10 First Class matches with a couple of warm-up matches gives you a great opportunity to develop that group as a team and the two as individuals.
“We come from a country with four different professional teams so trying to tie these guys together is very easy but it’s really a good part of what we do in Irish rugby and the RFA themselves have given us great support in terms of financing and to allowing us to do what we have to do.” We did it.”
While Ireland were able to fix any mistakes in the build-up to the Under-20 Championship, the Junior Boks had to “learn on the job”.
“[A struggling factor was] “It’s probably consistency, in terms of our technical details, and maybe learning on the job,” Nelliko said.
“I think in terms of the players, throughout the tournament we tried to fix, to get to the point where we could fix certain things and in some parts we were really good and other parts that didn’t happen for us.
“we love [more international matches] But it’s clearly above my pay grade. This is not due to unwillingness on our part.” DM