IT was tough from the very start for the Junior Boks on Tuesday, but the fact that they led well into the 70th minute should make their 24-22 World Rugby Under-20 Championship semi-final defeat to England even tougher to deal with.
But, to be fair, England called the shots right from the start and showed just why they made it into the playoffs unbeaten.
The Junior Boks, who relied on a kicking game in the early stages of the game, spent a great deal of the match defending, and when they did take control of the ball, they looked good. But England just looked better.
The defending champions’ halfback pairing of Alex Mitchell and Max Malins showed game-management beyond their years, while skipper and No 8 Zach Mercer showed superb skill and ran in two tries to help his side progress to the finals.
In the South African team, Juarno Augustus’ physicality and grit gave the English a tough time at the breakdowns, while he also contributed to the side with big tackles and, of course, two tries (he has scored in every Junior Springbok game at the tournament).
The defending champions got the opening try when captain Mercer finished off great interplay between the forwards and backs to score, and the Baby Boks answered with a try of their own when Augustus crossed the try-line after some enterprising play by Chean Roux’s team that started all the way back in own 22 with a great break (and a top fend) by flyhalf Curwin Bosch to make it seven-all at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia.
England got their second try when Malins broke through before sending scrumhalf Mitchell over the line for a converted try, and the pivot added a penalty to extend England’s lead to 17-7.
After a to and fro second quarter, Augustus scored his sixth try of the tournament after numerous driving phases by the SA U20s. Bosch missed with his conversion and England took the half-time lead at 12-17.
The Baby Boks started to dominate the set-pieces in the third quarter, and after some impressive work by the forwards, the Junior Boks took the lead for the first time in the third quarter when Ruben van Heerden forced his way over for a converted try (19-17).
England were ruthless on attack thereafter, but the Baby Boks’ defence was solid enough to keep them out on a few occasions.
With 10 minutes to go, Bosch slotted a penalty kick to extend his team’s lead to 22-17.
But Mercer struck again when he shrugged off three defenders and ran a great line to score the five-pointer that secured England’s fifth-consecutive final spot.
Junior Springboks: Tries: Juarno Augustus (2), Ruben van Heerden Conversions: Bosch (2) Penalties: Bosch (1)
England: Tries: Zach Mercer (2), Alex Mitchell Conversions: Malins (3) Penalties: Max Malins (1)