The eyes of the rugby world will be on Stellenbosch and Cape Town on Tuesday as the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023 prepares for a blockbuster finish to the pool stage.
Following two action-packed rounds on South Africa’s Western Cape 10 of the 12 teams still have a chance to qualify for the semi-finals.
Defending champions France, England and Ireland remain the only unbeaten teams heading into day three, while Les Bleuets were the only side to win both their opening matches.
It means the stage is set for a day full of ups, downs, twists and turns as every result will prove pivotal to the seedings heading into the knockout phase.
All to play for in Pool C
Nowhere is that more true than in Pool C, where all four teams start Tuesday with one win and a defeat to their name, Georgia one point adrift of Argentina, Italy and hosts South Africa as they have been unable to pick up a bonus point so far.
Day three will start at 11:00 local time (GMT+2) with Georgia’s match against Italy at Danie Craven Stadium, and both teams know they need to win to have any hope of landing an historic place in the semi-finals.
Both teams require a specific set of results for that to happen. Italy will top Pool C with victory, as long as South Africa beat Argentina and the teams finish level on points.
Should Argentina beat the hosts, however, Italy can only top the pool if they secure a bonus-point win against Georgia and Los Pumitas record a four-point victory.
“We certainly won’t play thinking about the final standings, we just want to go on the pitch and play our best rugby, giving everything we have got to win the game,” Italy coach Massimo Brunello said.
“What happens next will have its place at the right time.”
The Junior Lelos need to beat Italy with a try-scoring bonus-point and then hope for a four-point Argentine win against South Africa. In such a scenario they would finish top based on their head-to-head with Los Pumitas.
“The Argentinian game shows we have a lot of character; and the South Africa game shows the same thing when we talk about Italy,” Georgia coach Lado Kilasonia said.
“They’re a team with character, a team with passion, a team with good physical abilities, so I think it will be a really interesting game.”
Whoever comes out on top between Georgia and Italy faces an anxious wait, however, with the hosts’ match against Argentina not scheduled to kick-off at Athlone Sports Stadium until 19:00 local time.
South Africa will take heart from the fact they have not lost to Argentina at the U20 Championship since 2016 and beat Los Pumitas en route to their only title, which came on home soil 11 years ago.
Junior Springboks coach Bafana Nhleko has made eight changes to his starting line-up as South Africa attempt to rebound from defeat to Italy and book their place in the semi-finals for the 12th time in 13 tournaments.
“The equation is very simple going into Argentina, we all know what needs to be done – and, ultimately, we just have to go out onto the field and express ourselves within our system, but I do believe in the boys to be able to do what’s required,” Nhleko.
Argentina will top the pool if they beat the hosts with a bonus point, given they beat Italy on day one and Georgia can only finish with a maximum of nine points.
Improving Wales believe
France head into day three with a straightforward route to the semi-finals, avoid defeat against Wales at Athlone Sports Stadium (kick-off 16:30 local time) and their hunt for a third successive U20 Championship crown will continue.
Conversely, though, a bonus-point victory for the Welsh would ensure it is Mark Jones’ side that head into the knockout stages top of Pool A and leave the reigning champions sweating on a potential best runners-up spot.
Wales interim coach Jones has made five changes to his starting line-up as they chase a memorable win, and first against Les Bleuets since 2020. France won this year’s U20 Six Nations match between the sides 67-17 in Oyonnax.
“You can definitely feel there’s more of a belief in this group,” Wales assistant coach Richie Pugh said. “We’re identifying what they’re about, but we’re not putting them up on that pedestal.
“We’re talking about how we’re going to win and the fact that we’re mentioning winning, is a testament to where we’re at. We’ve got an opportunity, a huge opportunity. It’s exciting. But we’re going into it believing that we can qualify [for the] top four.”
Les Bleuets coach Sébastien Calvet has made 11 changes to the team that beat New Zealand on Thursday with Nicolas Depoortère taking on the captaincy.
“I’ve already captained in the Six Nations tournament. It’s a role that I enjoy and that I take very seriously. I do everything I can to respect it,” Depoortère said.
“At the very start of this tournament, Seb [Calvet] set out three leaders, three captains and here on the pitch against Wales, that’s me. We’re going to do everything we can to lead the team to victory and provide the right leadership to win this match.”
Given France and Wales play each other, it is unlikely that New Zealand will force their way to the top of Pool A but they will want to beat Japan in order to gain as high a seeding as they can.
New Zealand coach Clark Laidlaw has made eight changes to the team that was handed their heaviest defeat in U20 Championship history (35-14) by France on day two.
Japan were unfortunate to come away from their meeting with Wales last Thursday without anything to show for it and coach Rob Penney has made 12 changes to the team that will take on New Zealand as they seek a first-ever pool stage victory.
Australia hope to crash England’s party
England start day three ahead of Ireland on points difference alone in Pool B and the two sides know they will book a semi-final place with victory against Australia and Fiji respectively.
Should they both win then the team that finishes second in the pool will almost certainly join them in the semi-finals as the best runner-up.
Ireland get Tuesday’s Pool B action underway when they face Fiji at 13:30 local time at Danie Craven Stadium buoyed by a comfortable win against Australia last week.
Richie Murphy has made 11 changes to the Ireland team from that match, while Fiji coach Ifereimi Rawaqa has made two personnel and one positional change as the Pacific Island nation chase a first win of the tournament.
England meet Australia at 14:00 local time at Athlone Sports Stadium with both sides targeting the win they need to remain in the mix for the semi-finals.
Australia coach Nathan Grey has made six changes to the side that lost to Ireland, as the 2019 finalists attempt to force their way into title reckoning.
“We’ve got a clear plan for England. With the team and the squad that we have at the moment we can definitely get this job done,” Junior Wallabies captain Teddy Wilson said.
“That’s our pure focus at the moment – what we can control. That’s on Tuesday, against England, so we’re looking for a good game against them.”
England coach Mark Mapletoft has made 10 changes, including returns for captain Lewis Chessum and highly rated number eight Chandler Cunningham-South.
Having qualified for six successive finals between 2013-18 – winning three – England are plotting a return to the showpiece match.
“I am excited to play a southern hemisphere team, I didn’t get to play in the Fiji game so it’ll be good to play against Australia and do a job and get into a semi-final,” Cunningham-South said. “That’s the plan.”
SOURCE: WORLD RUGBY/PACNEWS