France won their first ever World Rugby U20 Championship on Sunday, winning the tournament on home soil by beating England 33-25 in the final in Beziers.
The win makes France just the 4th nation to win the World Rugby U20s, following in the footsteps of England themselves, South Africa, and the 2017 champions, New Zealand.
In doing so there will be real hope that this could spark a revival of French rugby at senior level, with the likes of Romain Ntamack, Demba Bamba, Louis Carbonel, Cameron Woki, and the irrepressible seventeen-year-old Jordan Joseph, right at the front of the queue of players that could lead a revolution back towards the glory days of French rugby.
Of course it is not quite that simple though, and England are in more of a position to be able to tell France that than most. This was a record 6th final in a row for England and they have one three of them, yet progress at senior level has stalled. The challenge for France and England, and indeed every nation, is to manage the development of these brilliant young players, ensuring that they gain valuable playing time with their clubs to set them on course not just for international honours, but to become top level international players.
In Joseph, France have one who will surely reach that status if he carries on with this current trajectory. The Racing 92 bound number 8 won the Breakthrough Player of the Tournament award, being voted ahead of teammate Romain Ntamack and England pair Jordan Olowofela and Gabriel Ibitoe. He becomes the fourth number 8 in a row to win the award, following South Africa’s Juarno Augustus last year, Ireland’s Max Deegan in 2016, and England’s James Chisholm in 2015.
It was Joseph’s back row partner Cameron Woki that gave France the opening try of the game though. Louis Carbonel had put France 6-0 ahead through his boot before Marcus Smith nabbed one back for England, but Woki extended the French lead after gathering a lovely offload from Maxime Marty and having the strength to barge over the line despite powerful covering tackles from Gabriel Ibitoye and the excellent Joel Kpoku.
Ten minutes later Carbonel slotted a third penalty for a 14-3 lead, but England bounced back on the stroke of half time as Jordan Olowofela, who else, finished of a long period of England pressure in the right hand corner when he latched on to Tom Hardwick’s big looping pass, sending England in 8-14 down at the break.
The penalty count was the big problem for England, both through poor discipline in open play and the outstanding work of the superbly powerful French tighthead Demba Bamba and chums at the scrum.
Those issues remained into the second half as Carbonel added three penalties in fifteen minutes, two of them from the scrum, to turn 14-8 into 23-8.
That scoreboard pressure seemed to be forcing England into errors as even their kick chase started to let them down. There was a rare shot in the arm for the pack with a little over fifteen minutes left though as the won a penalty of their own at the scrum with Marcus Smith taking the three points on offer for 23-11.
Carbonel added another for France before a mad final ten minutes of play, saw England first think they might have a shot of a comeback after Joe Heyes barged over following a lovely Rory Brand break, taking the scores to 26-18 with James Grayson’s conversion.
France killed the game off with five minutes remaining though as substitute Adrien Seguret pounced on a delightful Rugby League style grubber through from Carbonel.
England kept pushing though, determined not to go down without a fight, and how fitting that it was Jordan Olowofela, a star throughout this competition, who finished off the try scoring with just over a minute left, leaving the final score at France 33-25 England with Grayson’s conversion.
It was perhaps telling that England actually out scored France in the try scoring stakes, their discipline costing them, but few could have denied that France deserved their victory. They were simply outstanding, as they have been throughout, not least in their semi final win over New Zealand.
There was rugby throughout the day as the standings from 1 to 12 were confirmed in Beziers. South Africa sealed third with a superb second half display against New Zealand, winning 40-30. Australia meanwhile beat Argentina 41-15 for fifth place.
Wales secured 7th with a 34-17 victory over Italy, with Georgia once again showing their class in this tournament to beat Scotland 39-31, securing their highest ever finish of 9th.
Bar the final though, the most important game of the day was Ireland v Japan. The loser would be relegated to the 2019 World Rugby U20 Trophy, while the winner of this year’s tournament, taking place at the end of August, would replace them.
Both sides were well aware of the stakes and put on a thrilling game of rugby. Irish hearts must have been going wild as they tried to hold off an exciting Japanese side, and thy just about managed it, securing a 39-33 victory to end a Championship that they would probably prefer not to remember too much of. Crucially though, they will be back next year in Argentina.
England U20 XV:
15 Tom Parton, 14 Gabriel Ibitoye, 13 Fraser Dingwall, 12 Tom Hardwick, 11 Jordan Olowofela, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Ben White, 1 Alex Seville, 2 Henry Walker, 3 Ehren Painter, 4 Joel Kpoku, 5 James Scott, 6 Ted Hill, 7 Ben Curry (c), 8 Josh Basham.
Replacements: 16 Beck Cutting, 17 Ciaran Knight, 18 Joe Heyes, 19 Tom Willis, 20 Aaron Hinkley, 21 Rory Brand, 22 James Grayson, 23 Will Butler.
France U20 XV:
15 Clement Laporte, 14 Lucas Tauzin, 13 Pierre Louis Barassi, 12 Romain Ntamack, 11 Maxime Marty, 10 Louis Carbonel, 9 Arthur Coville (c), 1 Jean Baptiste Gros, 2 Guillaume Marchand, 3 Demba Bamba, 4 Thomas Lavault, 5 Killian Geraci, 6 Antonin Berruyer, 7 Cameron Woki, 8 Jordan Joseph.
Replacements: 16 Maxime Lamothe, 17 Ugo Boniface, 18 Daniel Brennan, 19 Pierre-Henri Azagoh, 20 Charlie Francoz, 21 Jules Gimbert, 22 Adrien Seguret, 23 Arthur Vincent.
2018 World Rugby U20 Championship Final Standings:
3 South Africa
4 New Zealand
12 Japan (relegated)
2018 World Rugby U20 Championship Results:
England v France – Final – 6pm, Beziers
South Africa 40-30 New Zealand – 3rd Place Play Off
Argentina 15-41 Australia – 5th Place Play Off
Wales 34-17 Italy – 7th Place Play Off
Scotland 31-39 Georgia – 9th Place Play Off
Ireland 39-33 Japan – 11th Place Play Off
New Zealand 7-16 France
England 32-31 South Africa
Wales 15-39 Argentina
Italy 15-44 Australia
Ireland 29-45 Scotland
Georgia 24-22 Japan
Wales 18-17 Japan
New Zealand 27-18 Australia
Italy 30-26 Argentina
England 35-10 Scotland
Ireland 20-24 Georgia
South Africa 29-46 France
Australia 54-19 Japan
New Zealand 42-10 Wales
Argentina 29-13 Scotland
England 43-5 Italy
France 24-12 Georgia
South Africa 30-17 Ireland
New Zealand 67-0 Japan
Wales 26-21 Australia
England 39-18 Argentina
Italy 27-26 Scotland
France 26-24 Ireland
South Africa 33-27 Georgia