France and Ireland were the stand-out teams in the Under-20 Championship and will meet for the second time this year in the final on Friday at Athlone Stadium. In the Under-20 Six Nations competition earlier this year, Ireland edged out the French 33-31.
Ireland flyhalf Sam Prendergast was the hero on that occasion, scoring a penalty in the 77th minute to win the match for his home side.
Pendergrast got off to a slow start in the World Championship but found his best form against South Africa. He scored 11 points in his team’s 31-12 victory over Junior Bucks, with a flawless display from the tee.
Ireland’s only misstep came in the opening match when they were held to a 34-34 draw with England in their Group B encounter.
“I think the important thing for us now is that we’re in the 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.
“I suppose in the second half (against South Africa) we probably put more of ourselves on the pitch with the way we can play the game. It’s good to be in a final and be honest with ourselves and play the game we’ve played all year.
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“We’re in a really good position. Obviously we got through the Six Nations and England had a right crack at the start of the competition, but we managed to come out of that with a draw.
“So, we’re going into this with a lot of confidence. We’re in a good place as a team.”
It was not easy for Ireland off the field, after suffering the death of Greg Oliver, father of one of their players, Jack, in a paragliding accident on the eve of their final group match against Fiji.
“Greg’s death was particularly difficult,” Murphy said.
Jack was even on set with us [last] Wednesday evening when he left. It was a difficult time for the boys but Jack sent his support and so did Fiona, Greg’s wife.”
“So, I know they’re at home and we’re really happy to be able to bring him back again because no matter what happens in the final, we’ll come back with something for Jack.”
However, France is not going by leaps and bounds. In fact, they’ve been dominant in all of their matches so far, topping Group A with three bonus point victories.
Particularly impressive was their 35-14 win over six-time under-20 tournament winners New Zealand in the second round of the match.
France finished second in the Under-20 Six Nations, and their defeat to Ireland was the only blemish so far this year.
The French group blown every team away in the under-20 competition, as the 150kg attacking Bosulu Tuilaje was incredibly difficult to stop in a furious race.
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France showed some stamina in defense against England in their 52-31 semi-final victory, having trailed 17-0 after 17 minutes, but fought back gamely to defeat their European counterparts.
Les Bleus will have to be at their best for 80 minutes against a skilled and mature Irish side to win their third consecutive Under-20 Championship.
The final kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Prior to the final, the losing teams will face South Africa and England in a match for third and fourth place.
For Junior Poke coach Bafana Nelliko, it’s an opportunity to give players a chance at this level.
“We said at the start of the tournament that we wanted to give everyone a taste of experimental rugby,” he said. “We did, but injuries and the result against Ireland have now given us another chance to expand on that, which means we’ll have some fresh body in the squad to face England. We lost Hakeem (Konen), JF van Heerden and Godien van Rheenen to injury, while he’s back.” Neal after missing two games due to head injury assessment protocols.
“We are sad to lose these three players, but at the same time happy for someone like Heene [Sieberhagen]. He trained with us with great enthusiasm even after being told he didn’t make the team and it’s great to be rewarded for that attitude.
“We still have a lot to play for. We’ve looked at the way England are playing and planned accordingly; we think we’ve put in a team that suits us in what we want to achieve.”
Centre-back Damien Marcus will make his second start for the Junior Springboks against England on Friday, while the SA U20 coach also had to make some changes due to injuries in the final clash.
Marcos started the second round match against Italy as the hosts lost 34-26, while Konene (full-back and shoulder), Van Heerdenen (lock and shoulder) and Van Reenen (winger and concussion) were ruled out of the final.
Regan Isak will start at centre-back, as he did against Italy in Paarl, while Cyberhagen will join the squad to replace Van Reenen and will make his debut in the number 7 shirt. The former Paarl Gimnasium pupil was in the wider squad, but missed out on final selection. He will now get a chance to show his strength.
Tian Wessels, who made his debut against Italy, will pick up a second cap in place of Van Heerden, while Quinn Norte (winger) and Nel Le Roux (scromalef) will also start – having done so last time against Italy – with Michael Annis. And Emad Khan plays on the bench this time.
Nhleko also changed the props. Mawande Mdanda and Phatu Ganyane will be battling it out together, having last done so in the opening match of the tournament against Georgia. On the bench, winger Gcinokuhle Mdletshe will also see some action, having last played against Italy.
South Africa vs England kicks off at 4:30pm on Friday at Athlone Stadium. DM