England U20 captain Zach Mercer scored a 76th-minute try to snatch a thrilling 24-22 win over the Junior Springboks in the semi-finals of the U20 Championship in Georgia on Tuesday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
South Africa had produced a courageous defensive performance to mount a remarkable comeback that saw them lead by five points heading into the final stages of this contest, but ultimately England found the means to keep their title defence alive.
For so much of the match, the Junior Boks were on the back foot, but they dominated the set pieces, and worked their way back into proceedings through resolute defence that simply refused to yield in the face of England attack after attack.
However, the reigning champs finally found a way to breach the Junior Boks’ defensive line as Mercer barged his way over to score the match-winner with less than five minutes to play.
On a beautiful evening in Tbilisi, both teams displayed a real intent to keep ball in hand early on, but it was the English who looked to be the more well-polished side, with impressive flyhalf Max Malins making a considerable impact.
England’s dominance in the opening quarter was duly reflected on the scoreboard as they moved into a handy 17-7 lead after Mercer and Alex Mitchell went over to score, with the only response from South Africa coming through try-scoring machine Juarno Augustus.
In addition to England winning a couple of key turnovers at the breakdown, they fed off five penalties that were conceded by the Junior Boks within the opening half an hour, and which enabled them to dominate territory and possession.
Considering how severely the Junior Boks were tested on defence, and how regularly their line was breached, the men in green would have been quite thankful to trail by just those 10 points heading towards the break.
However, in a key moment just before half-time, the Boks produced a massive scrum, and won a penalty that Curwin Bosch kicked deep into the England 22, with Augustus eventually squirming over for his second try as possession was recycled.
It cut the deficit to just five points at the interval, and although England moved straight back onto the front foot after the restart, the Junior Boks’ courageous defence somehow continued to keep them in the contest.
The Junior Boks then pounced on an uncharacteristic error from Malins, who booted a free kick out on the full, and from the resultant lineout on the England 22m line, South Africa built an attack that eventually resulted in a try to Ruben van Heerden under the posts.
It was a score that suddenly sent the Junior Boks into the lead for the first time in the match, while Bosch then slotted his first penalty of the match to push his side into a five-point buffer with just seven minutes to play.
But Mercer would go over to score with a decisive piece of play to break the hearts of the Junior Boks.
Junior Springboks – Tries: Juarno Augustus (2), Ruben van Heerden. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (2). Penalty: Bosch.
England U20 – Tries: Zach Mercer (2), Alex Mitchell. Conversions: Max Malins (3). Penalty: Malins.
Junior Springboks – 15 Manie Libbok, 14 Yaw Penxe, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Damian Willemse, 11 Gianni Lombard, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Juarno Augustus, 7 Ernst van Rhyn (c), 6 Len Massyn, 5 Ruben van Heerden, 4 Salmaan Moerat, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Kwenzo Blose.
Subs: 16 Gerhard Steenekamp, 17 Daniel Jooste, 18 Wikus Groenewald, 19 Reinhard Nothnagel, 20 Muller Uys, 21 Francois de Villiers, 22 Stedman Gans, 23 Jeanluc Cilliers.
England U20 – 15 Tom Parton, 14 Darren Atkins, 13 Will Butler, 12 Theo Clews, 11 Gabriel Ibitoye, 10 Max Malins, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Zach Mercer (c), 7 Ben Earl, 6 Dino Lamb, 5 Justin Clegg, 4 Josh Caulfield, 3 Marcus Street, 2 Joe Mullis, 1 Ollie Dawe.
Subs: 16 Henry Walker, 17 Alex Seville, 18 Ciaran Knight, 19 Max Davies, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Harry Randall, 22 Jacob Umaga, 23 Paolo Odogwu.
Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images