Johannesburg - The Junior Boks lost a desperately close Junior World Cup final at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday morning, falling just one point shy of England, the defending champions.
“We fought hard, but we weren’t good enough,” said a bitterly disappointed Handre Pollard, the South African captain. “England were good at the set piece, and they disrupted us there. Next time will come around. You won’t find a better bunch of guys that this (Junior Bok) team.”
Pollard had the consolation of being named as the IRB Junior Player of the Year.
Joel Conlon’s try tipped the match the way of England after South Africa had failed to properly deal with a maul, thinking they had dragged it down. England, though, were not yet done and Conlon flopped over to extend the lead to eight points. South Africa were not yet done. With 17 minutes remaining, Jessie Kriel scored his second try of the match, a wonderful score that started deep in the South African half. Duhan van der Merwe ran strongly down the left wing, and fed Kriel to give South Africa a sniff of victory, leaving them just one point behind.
South Africa attacked with gusto, their tails up, but twice they coughed up the ball in the England 22, and England began to believe they could hold on. They wound down the minutes, ground out the scrums, mauls and rucks, and dragged out the lineouts.
England had had the early possession in the match. They charged down the first kick by JP Smith and then won a turn-over just outside the South African 22. It was a scrappy opening to the game, with Smith having another kick charged down not long after and the clearing of rucks was bitty and nervous.
Pollard scored the first points after 13 minutes of play, given the easiest of penalties to kick over after England had offended at the ruck. England were back on even terms just over a minute later with a penalty converted by Billy Burns of their own for a similar offence
Pollard, who is surely destined for greater things this year, created the first try for South Africa with a kick of sublime vision after the Boks had won turnover ball just outside the England 22. He popped the ball over the England defence, Jessie Kriel picked it up on the bounce, shrugged off an attempted tackle to score the try.
England came back hard at South Africa, although wing Howard Packman had the decency to look a little embarrassed after he tried to con the referee with what might just be the first recorded “dive” in the Junior World Cup. He had kicked the ball ahead, realised he had kicked it too far and then flung himself to the ground. When the England captain, Maro Itoje, tried to remonstrate with referee Ben O'Keeffe of New Zealand, he was given short shrift.
England worked their way back into the match. First, through a 56-metre penalty by fullback Aaron Morris, and then, with halftime a few minutes away, with a try from Nathan Earle, which gave them a lead they did not relinquish.
South Africa had made one change from the team that had beaten New Zealand in the semifinal. Dan Kriel replaced Lloyd Greef on the right wing. His “huge work rate on defence” was the reason for Kriel joining his twin brother in the team, according to the team management.
South Africa (10) 20
Tries: J Kriel (2). Conversions: Pollard (2). Penalties: Pollard (2)
England (11) 21
Tries: Earle, Conlon. Conversion: Burns. Penalties: Burns (2), Morris