The French thoroughly deserve it. That’s one of the unmistakable facts after the hosts secured their first-ever World Rugby Under-20 Championship victory over the Junior Springboks on Thursday night in Narbonne.
The Junior Boks went down 46-29, but at least still qualified for the semi-finals by virtue of being the best second-placed team across the three pools.
France were on fire from the kickoff. Throughout the first half, they looked like scoring whenever they had the ball – which was most of the time – as they played a running game at an incredibly high tempo, used their space and support to great efficiency, and showed fluidity and offloading flair on attack that would put a lot of senior international teams to shame.
They wasted absolutely no time in getting the scoreboard ticking.
After a Junior Bok lineout on the opposition 22, France turned possession over after the set-piece before a sequence of stunning play – which included superb running lines, fine support play and top passes – allowed them to penetrate South Africa’s defence and score the opening try through Jordan Joseph. Louis Carbonel added the conversion.
While France’s intensity in open play was massive, they also made a big statement at scrum time, and their very first showdown displayed the scrummaging ability of their pack. And shortly after that encounter, a penalty kick by Carbonel extended their lead to 10-0.
The young Frenchmen’s fantastic offloading game stood out early on already, but at the 16-minute mark, they got the reward for their exceptional handling skills when Carbonel scored an unconverted try after a spell of play that again proved just too much for the Junior Boks to keep up with.
South Africa barely had time to catch a breath before the sea of blue jerseys struck again through powerful No 8 Joseph, and that converted try took the score to 22-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Any high hopes of a comeback was reduced to an unlikely occurrence after a converted try by Pierre-Louis Barassi – the ultimate reward for beautiful interplay between backs and forwards – took the score to 29-0.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Chean Roux’s team, inside centre Romain Ntamack added another, converted by Carbonel, which saw the score elevated to 36-0 in the 32nd minute.
To their credit, the Junior Boks – who basically just defended for 36 minutes until then – showed great patience and discipline to score after taking the ball through 12 phases from a lineout.
Lubabalo Dobela, who started at No 10 as Damian Willemse suffered a knee injury against Ireland, added the conversion after sending an early penalty kick wide to make it 36-7 at halftime.
The Baby Boks looked more energised after the chat at the break, and after some time spent in France’s 22 – a sight that wasn’t too familiar until then – a powerful driving maul saw replacement hooker Tiaan van der Merwe dot down.
You won't stop him from there. Jordan Joseph powers over to give @FFRugby the lead against South Africa at the #WorldRugbyU20s
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The second half was almost a complete contrast to the first. That breathtaking rugby – all compliments of the French – turned into an error-filled second stanza by the men in blue, especially in the last quarter. And in this half, it was all South Africa as they allowed France very little possession.
But it didn’t stop the French from sneaking in another try. An intercept pass by flanker Cameron Woki, who was one of the standouts on the day with his rampaging runs and general influence on attack, set up replacement prop Jean-Baptisse Gross for yet another seven-point score.
The Junior Boks had scored both their first and second tries from phase play, and whenever they had the chance, they tried to use their lineout drive as a weapon.
They kept it tight throughout the game, but wing Wandisile Simelane – who is the top try-scorer in the tournament – made sure to add some excitement with his run and step that saw him evade defenders to score in the corner.
Roux’s team had a golden opportunity to close the gap when France were reduced to 14 men after a yellow card for repeated infringements, and they struck when replacement loosehead Alulutho Tshakweni scored from a lineout drive.
Their goal-kicking let them down, though, and yet another misdirected kick again deprived them of a seven-point try.
Replacement prop Sazi Sandi got the Junior Boks’ fifth try after some more tight play, and this time Gianni Lombard hit the black dot to add the conversion.
As good as the Junior Boks’ fightback was, it wasn’t enough to close in on France’s points. And after the French completely destroyed the Junior Boks in a late scrum, they added a penalty kick in the last minute.
The semi-finals, both next Tuesday, will see New Zealand square off against France, while the Junior Boks will meet England.
France 46 – Tries: Jordan Joseph (2), Louis Carbonel, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Romain Ntamack, Jean-Baptisse Gros. Conversions: Carbonel (3), Ntamack (2). Penalties: Carbonel (2).
Junior Boks 29 – Tries: Schalk Erasmus, Tiaan van der Merwe, Wandisile Simelane, Alulutho Tshakweni, Sazi Sandi. Conversions: Lubabalo Dobela (1), Gianni Lombard (1).