Junior Wallabies just fall short as France claim back-to-back titles

Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby

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They were oh so close, but a brave and brilliant Junior Wallabies side have fallen 24-23 to France in the World Rugby U20s Championship final in Rosario, giving Les Bleuets back-to-back titles.

They outscored their opponents by three tries to two, including the opener after just 45 seconds. But kicking prowess off the tee proved to be the difference, with 10pts left out there by Australia, while French flyhalf Louis Carbonel slotted four penalties to edge his side home.

“It was a tough loss to cop,” admitted head coach Jason Gilmore. “Our boys showed plenty of courage but unfortunately just fell short. The period before half time swung momentum to France and they capitalised. Full credit to them on their victory.
 
“I am really proud of this playing group. They have faced plenty of adversity and fronted up every time. They are a tight group and no doubt we will see them in the future in Super Rugby and the Wallabies.
 
“I would like to thank everyone back home and the families that have been with us in Argentina. The support the boys have received has been outstanding. We are gutted with the result but hopefully represented the country well.”

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The Aussies got off to a lightning-fast start with a try inside the opening minute, fullback Isaac Lucas dummying his way through the French line, drawing a defender, and feeding Mark Nawanaqitawase on his outside for a run to the corner. But Les Bleuets hit back in the 7th minute off a turnover on the edge of the Wallaby 22, scrumhalf Leo Coly nipping in to unleash hooker Theo Lachaud, who was too big and too strong to drive over from 10 metres.

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Mark Nawanaqitawase dives home for the opener after just 49 seconds – Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby

Louis Carbonel added the extras to put the reigning champions in front, and having responded well after the early setback, they enjoyed the majority of possession for the next 10 minutes. The pressure eventually told when Australia were caught offside, and the talented flyhalf added another 3pts for a 10-5 lead. However, that was soon wiped off when the Aussies forced a penalty for not releasing from their next visit upfield, and Will Harrison made it 10-8 with a quarter of an entertaining encounter already over.

Australia then hit the lead again with a well-worked try on 22 minutes. Halfback Michael McDonald targeted the shortside and found centre Semisi Tupou, who hitch-kicked to burn a hole through the defence, before releasing Lachlan Lonergan for the line with a perfectly-timed pass, and the hooker’s fourth try of the tournament.

The next 10 minutes saw plenty of turnovers, with possession at a premium as both sides tried to wrestle momentum their way. But it was Les Bleuets who struck again, and it was their powerful maul that did the damage.

A penalty on the 10 metre line allowed Carbonel to slice off a chunk of prime attacking real estate, with a pinpoint kick to touch. And as the expected drive towards the Aussie line ensued, the French forwards smartly worked a mismatch on the five-metre channel, for prop Alex Burin to peel off and find the chalk.

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No.8 Will Harris on the charge – Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby

Carbonel’s conversion from out wide struck an upright. But the 20-year-old didn’t miss the target a couple of minutes later, when further ill discipline from the Junior Wallabies gifted their opponent’s a half-time lead of 18-13.

The Aussies went on the offensive straight from the restart, McDonald felled just shy of the line and Will Harrison held up just over it, by burly French no.8 Jordan Joseph. Play was brought back for a penalty, but skipper Fraser McReight passed up the easy 3pts in search of more, only to see that opportunity go begging when a rare loose carry from fellow backrower Harry Wilson let the French off the hook.

Undeterred, they took the same option a few minutes later when France were pinged for offside. And this time they got the reward their bravura demanded, the forwards driving Wilson over successfully off a lineout, and Harrison adding the extras to restore a 2pt advantage at 20-18.

With their noses back in front, discretion became the better part of valour in the 52nd minute when Wilson was taken without the ball. But Harrison’s penalty attempt drifted wide to make it a valuable 7pts missed off the boot. And that profligacy came back to bite them before the hour mark, when a French team starved of ball in the second half as Australia enjoyed 90% possession, edged ahead once again when a rare foray upfield drew a penalty – duly dispatched by Carbonel.

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Flyhalf Will Harrison under pressure – Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby

A breakdown penalty at the other end gave Harrison a shot at redemption, which the Randwick no.10 grabbed with both hands to force yet another lead change at 23-21, and as the see-sawing contest entered the last quarter of the tournament, both sides looked to the bench for that final push towards glory.

As is often the case in a big final, discipline would prove to be the deciding factor. Up to that point of the second stanza, the Junior Wallabies had benefited from a six-to-one penalty count in their favour. But when referee James Doleman, who had an excellent match, ruled that the Aussie pack had stood up at the scrum on 65 minutes, Carbonel punished with impunity to give the defending champions the advantage, as they entered the all-important championship minutes.

A long-range effort from the lengthier boot of McDonald fell just shy shortly after, before another rampaging surge from the impressive Wilson saw him gallop into space and grubber ahead for his skipper McReight, who was only edged out of grounding in-goal by the quick-feet of his opposition leader Arthur Vincent.

But France managed the closing stages well, the presence of six of the side that lifted the trophy 12 months earlier on home soil, an obvious boon. The replacements had done their bit, the revamped pack in particular providing a sturdier platform at the set-piece to frustrate Australian intentions. And as they set up camp in the green and gold half, blanketing the field with a wall of blue and happy to hold onto what they had, they forced Australia to go the length to snatch the trophy from their grasp.

They damn well tried, this Aussie team certainly not one that was about to die wondering. But it just wasn’t to be, a knock-on signalling the final whistle, and leaving a sea of jubilant blue to celebrate, while a band of crestfallen gold fell to its knees.

It goes without saying that a maiden title would have been a crowning achievement for this young group, and a much-needed shot in the arm for the men’s game in particular in Australia. But the levels of performance across the board, the manner of their displays over the last three weeks, and the promise offered by a host of potential future superstars, can only serve to put a smile on the dial of everyone involved in rugby in this country.

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France lifted their second successive title – Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby

FRANCE U20’s 24 (Theo Lachaud, Alex Burin tries; Louis Carbonel cons; Louis Carbonel 4 pens) defeated JUNIOR WALLABIES 23 (Mark Nawaqanitawase, Lachlan Lonergan, Harry Wilson tries; Will Harrison con, Will Harrison 2 pens)

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JUNIOR WALLABIES: 1. Angus Bell (Sydney University); 2. Lachlan Lonergan (Tuggeranong Vikings); 3. Josh Nasser (University of Queensland); 4. Michael Wood (Brothers); 5. Trevor Hosea (Harlequins Rugby Club); 6. Harry Wilson (Brothers) 7. Fraser McReight (c) (Brothers); 8. Will Harris (Eastern Suburbs); 9. Michael McDonald (Palmyra); 10. Will Harrison (Randwick); 11. Mark Nawaqanitawase (Eastwood); 12. Noah Lolesio (Tuggeranong Vikings); 13. Semisi Tupou (Box Hill); 14. Triston Reilly (AU7s/Randwick); 15. Isaac Lucas (Sunnybank)

Replacements: 16. Joe Cotton (West Bulldogs); 17. Bo Abra (Eastern Suburbs); 18. Darcy Breen (Sydney University); 19. Rhys Van Nek (Easts); 20. Esei Ha’angana (Melbourne Unicorns); 21. Nick Frost (Queanbeyan Whites); 22. Carlo Tizzano (University of Western Australia); 23. Patrick Tafa (Northern Suburbs); 24. Henry Robertson (Sydney University); 25. Ben Donaldson (Randwick); 26. Kye Oates (University of Queensland); 27. Joey Walton (Gordon); 28. Sione Tui (Melbourne Unicorns)

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