The final round of pool action at the U20 Rugby World Cup will be played out on Tuesday, July 4th, at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch.
Having initially played the bulk of the fixtures in nearby Paarl, the tournament organisers will be hoping the pitch holds up better in Stellenbosch.
Resembling more of a bog than a suitable playing surface, the Paarl pitch simply would not have held up for another round. Thus, the move to the home of Stellenbosch University Rugby was a no-brainer and will be a welcome sight for all teams involved.
With the action now just twenty-four hours away, here are five of the biggest storylines to follow as teams jostle for the all-important semi-final positions.
Ireland And England Shoot-Out For Pool Two
Arch rivals Ireland and England enter the final round of action tied on points atop Pool B. Based on the qualification format for the tournament, there is a strong possibility that both sides will qualify with a victory. Should both sides win with equal points, i.e., both with or without a bonus point, then England would likely top the group on points difference unless Ireland put a cricket score up against Fiji. Working in Ireland’s favour is their late bonus point victory over Australia, given they are expected to beat Fiji rather comfortably. This, therefore, means England will need to secure a bonus point against a tough Australian team who themselves could qualify as the best runner-up with a big bonus point victory. Given the lay of the land, it looks highly likely that Pool B will be the one to produce two semi-finalists.
Home Side On The Ropes
Falling to a historic first-ever loss to Italy at the U20 level, host nation South Africa enter the final round fighting for their lives. A loss to Argentina, who themselves suffered a historic loss in round two, would spell the end of the Junior Boks campaign. Interestingly both powerhouse nations could find themselves on the outside looking in, with either Italy or Georgia progressing in what would be a historic moment for U20 Rugby. Given the hype surrounding this group of U20 players, there is a real sense of disappointment surrounding the Junior Boks. This could, however, all be changed with an emphatic and momentum-building victory over Los Pumas.
Les Bleus To Secure Top Seeding
Unquestionably the most physically imposing side in this year’s competition, back-to-back reigning champions France look set to secure top seeding heading into the semi-finals. All that stands in their way is an ever-improving Welsh side who pushed the Junior All Blacks to the brink before falling one point short of victory. A big bonus point victory over Japan has seen the Welsh leapfrog the Kiwis into second place in the group and still with a chance of qualification. In reality, the French will likely steamroll the Welsh as they did in the Six Nations. On current form, the only side that looks capable of stopping the big blue juggernaut is Ireland, who has beaten them in the past two U20 Six Nations.
Italy And Georgia Once Again On The Precipice Of History
As touched upon above, both Georgia and Italy have made history in this year’s championship. Defeating Argentina and South Africa, respectively, the two smaller rugby nations took major strides forward. Now they will have a chance to go toe-to-toe with a very real possibility of topping Pool C and, with it securing a place in the semi-finals. For Italy, they will need to put up a big score in terms of points difference should either Argentina or South Africa win with a bonus point. Should they defeat Georgia with a bonus point whilst neither South Africa nor Argentina wins with a bonus point, they will qualify. For Georgia, a bonus point victory is likely a non-negotiable unless Argentina and South Africa play out a non-bonus point draw. Thus, the stage is set for two sides many feel are on the up and up.
An All-Northern Hemisphere Semi-Final Series
Could the unthinkable really happen? Could none of the big four from the Southern Hemisphere be present in this year’s semi-finals? Building on the points above, it really comes down to how Pool C plays out. Given the form of the four teams in Pool C, a tight tussle in both fixtures is the likely outcome. The question will then be which side can secure an all-important bonus point. Given the swell of emotion and momentum behind them, Italy appears to be the best bet for the knockout stages. Should this happen, the likely last four would read as France, Ireland, England, and Italy in what would be a remarkable moment for Six Nations Rugby.