South Africa or England will join IRB Junior World Championship 2014 hosts New Zealand as a multiple winner of the Under 20 title on Friday and the captains and coaches of both teams know that a titanic battle awaits them at Eden Park.
The last two nations to lift the distinctive trophy – South Africa at home in 2012 and England last year in France – have both reached the final with unbeaten records after topping their respective pools and then overcoming New Zealand and Ireland in the semi-finals in contrasting fashion.
For the Junior Springboks it took until the 78th minute to break New Zealand hearts in the semi-final and for captain Handré Pollard – one of four players this week nominated for the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2014 Award – that has only strengthened the belief of his side.
“The whole tournament we have been down a bit first half and we have come to grow into the belief that even though there is two minutes on the clock we can win this game,” said Pollard. “That is something I love about our side.
“It is something you don’t coach, it is just something that comes with the team and with the character of a side. For us it is a big bonus, a big positive that we can keep believing, it doesn’t matter what the score is until the last minute.
“Hopefully we aren’t behind going into the last minute though!”
Pollard is no stranger to a JWC final, having been part of South Africa’s success on home soil in 2012. The fly half was just 18 then and is now playing in his third tournament so is under no illusion as to what will be key to more success.
“I think at the end of the day it is going to be the side that wants it the most that is going to win it,” admitted Pollard, who is the leading point scorer at both JWC 2014 and also in the competition’s history.
“Set piece is the biggest thing going into the final. I know how 2012 was won, we had 17 lineouts and we won all 17 of them. It is something you can’t go without in a final, the set piece. It is also the conversion rate you have, you have got to get down there and get points, whether it is three, five or seven – just get points whenever you go down to the opposition’s half.”
That is a sentiment echoed by his England counterpart Callum Braley, a member of England’s victorious side 12 months ago.
“They have played New Zealand twice and beaten them twice so they have proved their worth without a shadow of a doubt. They will be a physical side and it will be a good match for us to test ourselves against the most physical team in the world.
“I think set piece will be key, they have a good set-piece, especially the driving lineout, but then so have we, we have a good set-piece, a good scrum. Whichever teams gets the best platform because both teams have got dangerous backs, so it will be an interesting battle for sure.
“It is going to take the full 80 minutes and more on Friday evening.”
Time to savour the moment
South Africa coach Dawie Theron is in charge for this fourth Junior World Championship and believes having to overcome hosts New Zealand not once, but twice will stand his players in good stead in the heat of the title decider.
“It is like almost a third final for us in this tournament,” admitted the former Springbok. “The first one against New Zealand we approached as a final and then we had to play them again in the semis.
“I think the guys are very battle-hardened, I believe the players can handle the pressure and that is what we have to believe at the moment. The guys have just got to go out and enjoy themselves, savour the moment of being in the final and just give it their all.
“I think in more ways than one we are very similar sides. They want to really be dominant up front as we like to do. They scored a lot of tries from set piece and that is also a very important facet for us. I already spoke to the guys and said if can dominate up front we have got the best chance of winning.
“I think it is going to be a tough, hard-fought battle and a proper Test.”
Something his counterpart Nick Walshe knows only too well and the size of the task his players will face as they attempt to do what only New Zealand have done before and successfully defend the Junior World Championship title.
“I think it will be a good game, it is going to be very tough and this game is going to be not far off senior Test match level because these guys are as big as senior Test players and it is quite frightening how big both these sets of boys are,” admitted Walshe.
“We have got to perform well, there is no point even thinking about winning the game, we have got to get our performance right against an extremely strong and powerful South Africa. We know what is coming, we are going to match it and try and do well.
“Without a doubt they will be the most physical team we have played. But they are not just a physical side, with Handre Pollard at 10 they can play a wide game and they have got some good outside backs. We know they have got good forwards, they are just going to provide us with a stiffer test probably than what we have faced.
Playing for pride and positions
“I want to see a really good 80-minute performance, not everything is going to go our way but an 80-minute performance means that we are defending well, we are attacking well, set piece is going ok and all these kind of things. We need 80 minutes without a doubt.”
While the final will hog the limelight, there are five other matches which are equally important to the teams involved as they will determine the final standings of Junior World Championship 2014 in New Zealand.
Hosts New Zealand will be determined to finish on a positive note by beating Ireland in the third place play-off in the penultimate match at Eden Park, a scenario which would be one place better than they managed last year in France.
Ireland are already guaranteed their best finish after reaching the semi-finals for the first time, although coach Mike Ruddock knows the challenge that awaits them. “Trying to defeat a New Zealand team in Eden Park is a formidable challenge for any Irish team but we will give it our best shot.”
One more and Kellaway, the leading try scorer at JWC 2014 with eight, will break the record set by All Blacks Julian Savea and Zac Guildford for most tries in a single Junior World Championship.
The other three matches take place at QBE Stadium in North Harbour with Italy kicking things off against Fiji in the 11th place play-off, before Argentina and Scotland meet to battle over ninth and 10th and then 2013 runners-up Wales come face to face with Samoa in the seventh place play-off.
With Italy hosting next year’s tournament Fiji will be relegated to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2015 regardless of the outcome against the Azzurrini. The Fijians though will want to finish on a high and pick up their first win of the tournament in New Zealand.
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