Upsets Help Find Semifinalists at Junior Rugby World Championships

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Upsets Help Find Semifinalists at Junior Rugby World Championships
Simon Watts/Getty Images

New Zealand were the benefactors of a handful of results which has seen them progress to the semifinals from an improbable situation at the Junior Rugby World Championships.  They claim the wild-card spot and progress along with the three pool winners, England, Ireland and South Africa.

The weather acted as a leveller, as tough conditions made it hard for the top teams to execute. A thick haze of rain fell all day, creating slippery conditions underfoot, making a running game hard and handling exceptionally difficult. On top of this, a strong wind blew which challenged the kickers.

It was France's loss to Wales that turned out to be the key result of the day, opening up the wild-card spot for the top second-placed team to either Australia or New Zealand. With Ireland having dispatched Fiji in a brutal encounter earlier in the day, France needed just two competition points to put the semifinals out of reach for the two Australasian teams. 

However, France were unable to overcome a huge defensive effort from Wales, in a game that was tight, both in the scoreline and how it was played. The two sides used their powerful ball runners to try to gain ascendancy, while both half-backs kicked well for field position. Both defences were up to the task though and neither could find an easy way through.

A second-half try proved to be decisive for Wales, allowing them to get out to a 13-3 lead which they would hold for the remainder of the game. It was not enough to get them through to the semifinals, but it was enough to knock France out of contention, after entering the day in such a strong position.

At the same time, the Australians got the bonus-point win over Italy that they needed to put themselves in position to claim the wild-card position. However, Italy showed much of the resilience that has characterised their tournament thus far and held the Australians to just 29 points. This would prove to be crucial, as it left New Zealand with the equation of having to win with a bonus-point by margin of just five points against Scotland.

This would have put the New Zealanders' minds at ease, as it was clear from early on that as long as they got the four tries, the margin would not be an issue. 

New Zealand proceeded to comprehensively beat an average Scotland outfit 54-7. The scoreline though was more of a reflection of the lack of quality of Scotland than the proficiency of New Zealand. They struggled to execute at set-piece time and were pushed around at times at the breakdown.

However, they made use of their dangerous backs who showed their skill and operated well in the wet conditions. This saw New Zealand comfortably achieve the qualification requirements in what was an unexpected situation after their heavy loss to South Africa on Friday.

In the other two games, pool winners South Africa and England both scraped home in their games against Samoa and Argentina. Both did not handle the conditions well and were put under pressure by teams who were trying to avoid the relegation section of the tournament.

Samoa's line speed against South Africa was fantastic, as they got up fast and aggressively met the South African ball runners. The game remained in-close and they were able to put the Baby Boks under enough pressure to force elementary mistakes. Two second-half tries saw South Africa get out to a 21-8 lead though, winning in a scoreline that greatly flattered the Africans.

England too looked off their game, while Argentina had their best game of the tournament and after scoring a late try, they looked like causing a major upset. It was not to be though, as a last-minute penalty saw England get out of jail with a 17-16 win.

The teams will now look ahead to Sunday, when the play-off rounds begin. In the championship section of the draw, Ireland take on England in one semifinal, while New Zealand find themselves in a rematch with South Africa. The two winners will then progress on to the Final to be played at Eden Park next Friday.

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