Itoje captains England U20 to JWC glory
Old Albanian’s Maro Itoje captained England U20 as they defended their IRB Junior World Championship, beating South Africa 21-20 at Eden Park, Auckland.
Itoje was joined by club-mates Nick Tompkins and Nathan Earle, who scored a try.
Tries from Earle and Joel Conlon looked to have put England on the way, but the Baby Boks rallied from 21-13 down to set up a thrilling finale.
In the end, a pair of penalties and a conversion from Billy Burns – plus Aaron Morris’ superbly-struck penalty from inside his own half – proved just enough.
After a cagey opening, Pollard and Burns exchanged penalties to make it three-apiece with 18 minutes on the clock.
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South Africa had the opening score with half an hour played after a tap-and-go from England’s Henry Taylor was knocked-on by Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi. The ball fell to Pollard, who chipped through for Jessie Kriel to score.
England never really got going in the first 35 minutes but had some joy at the end of the half. First Morris sent a 55-metre penalty flying between the sticks before a smart break from Nick Tompkins freed up space for Earle to dive over. It was the Saracens winger’s sixth try of the tournament.
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Another Burns penalty just after half time extended their narrow lead to 14-10 before Pollard hit back to make it 14-13. With the game on a knife-edge, England got the ultimately decisive second try – executing a rolling maul from a lineout to perfection, with replacement Conlon eventually touching down.
At 21-13 up, Burns saw a penalty sail to the left of the posts, and England were made to pay when Kriel went over for his second try after a scything South African attack.
The impressive Pollard sent a drop-goal attempt just wide with five minutes to play, but England’s staunch defence held firm for their second consecutive JWC title.
Itoje said: “It doesn’t feel real at the moment. It feels pretty special. It’s something I dreamt of when I heard about the JWC and I am so happy to be able to lift it.
“It is massive, it has never been done before in English rugby. It shows the club academies are doing their work, the RFU academy and their personal development is working, so long may it continue.”
Billy Burns added: “The South Africans came at us hard and it could have gone either way but we showed that character. Full credit to the forwards to dig it out at the end for five or six minutes. It was an outstanding effort and we have worked hard all campaign and to come out with a gold medal in the end is a massive achievement.
“It was one of our big strengths. We always believe in ourselves and no matter what position we are in on the field we feel we can find a way out of it. In the first half the set piece didn’t go as planned and us backs weren’t as sharp and to come out in the second half and show the character that we did and grind out that win was a real good achievement.
“It was six minutes the forwards held onto the ball there in the end and all credit to them for the discipline the whole way. We knew we couldn’t give any penalties away because to be fair Handre Pollard was kicking outstanding and we knew that if we gave him opportunities he was going to take it so all credit goes to the forwards they really got us out of that one.
“We won it last year but it was a different squad so we had no title to our name so to come out here to win it back-to-back in the southern hemisphere was a massive achievement and one we will enjoy for sure.”
Coach Nick Walshe concluded: “I thought we grew through the game and got some composure. Aaron banging the penalty over was a real boost and then sneaking in the corner just before half time really gave us a shift of momentum. In the second half we played some really good rugby and we got chances and to get to 21-13 up we just needed that one more score. We couldn’t get the killer blow and they just came straight back but I felt we were in control of the second half just before the last five or 10 minutes.
“It is difficult to compare [between this year and last year’s JWC]. Last year it was just as hard, we were 15-3 down at half time with 14 men for 10 minutes so again that was more of a really good come back. Probably not as physical as this game but that was a very tough game to win. Tonight we grew into the game and I thought we took all their shots and then we started getting a few shots off and started getting into our game. Any world cup final win is tough and this is a magnificent effort and I am so unbelievably proud of the boys.
“It just is an incredible achievement and I can’t really explain it. It is just as special as last year. Last year it was special because it was the first, this year it is special because of where we are and what it means and how we have played, it’s been phenomenal. I have massive respect for the South Africans they are a fantastic side and that is why it is such a massive achievement to beat them. They played really good physical rugby and scored a couple of good tries, especially the last one. You know it is a huge, huge battle when you play South Africa.”