England held on for a nail-biting 21-20 victory over South Africa in the final of the IRB Junior World Championship at Eden Park, New Zealand. It was a tight game both on the scoreboard and in the way it was played, as each team looked to go too wide with the ball and space was at a premium.
The English did their damage in the 10 minutes either side of halftime, notching up 18 of their points during this period. Their forward pack was at its best during this time, applying pressure to the South Africans, retaining ball well and forcing the defence onto the back foot.
It was a break from Nick Tompkins that initially opened things up for the English on the stroke of halftime. The South African defence scrambled well, but quick ball saw England make use of an overlap down the blind side to allow Nathan Earle to score in the corner. Their second try came early in the second half, pushing the South African pack backwards with a well-set rolling maul which could not be stopped.
South Africa finished the stronger of the two, scoring a brilliant try after breaching what was otherwise a very tough English defence. They applied pressure for the majority of the final 20 minutes, as the reserves came on and clearly made a difference, adding energy up front.
But the English held on with strong defence that was up fast, smothering the strong South African ball runners and preventing their dangerous outside backs from getting into space. Handre Pollard had a dropped goal to win from 40 metres out, but this went away to the right and he never got another chance to get one off.
Pollard was a key player in the game, using his educated boot to give South Africa field position frequently. The South African chasers were up fast, and the English had precious few chances to use their lethal back three and squandered the chances they did get. With the Baby Boks line-out being so dominant, they could kick for touch with greater confidence of getting the ball back.
Both forward packs impressed, boasting a set of massive players who have simply been too much to handle for the other teams in the tournament to date. However, one thing that was evident was that neither would get away with bullying the other as they had done so far. Neither took a step backwards, both using their strong forward runners to try to gain momentum, but both met these runners with a strong, well-organised defence which never lacked for commitment.
The win sees England defend their world title at the under-20 level and cement themselves as a team with a bright future. In recent years we have seen a resurgence in England rugby which has made them once again a genuine top team in the world. It will not be a surprise at all to see some of the boys from this under-20 team featuring in the senior team over the next few years. If they can fulfil their potential, England has a very bright future indeed.
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