Outstanding No8 Zach Mercer scored a late try, which flyhalf Max Malins converted, to give England a narrow 24-22 win in a tense World Rugby Under-20 Championship semifinal in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Tuesday.
England led 17-12 at halftime.
The Junior Boks will rue a slew of mistakes that allowed England to stay in the game despite their set piece wilting under huge South African pressure. England enjoyed the bulk of ball, particularly in the first half, but were on the ropes for long periods of the second half. The Junior Boks, though, lacked the cutting edge that saw them smash Argentina in their final pool match five days earlier.
SA No8 Juarno Augustus was equally impressive scoring two more tries to take his tournament tally to five, while the rest of the pack were immense.
The Junior Bok backline, which has been a vaunted unit at these championships, did not have enough quality ball to test England’s defence and it was left to SA’s pack to do the damage.
Flyhalf Curwin Bosch was unable to dictate terms as England’s manic defence shut down his options while fullback Manie Libbok had a nightmare afternoon, culminating in a shared missed tackle on Mercer with centre Damian Willemse, as the Englishman went in for the winning try with three minutes left.
It was the 10th time these two sides have met in the 10th edition of this tournament and England now hold a 7-3 winning record against SA, as they advanced to their fifth successive final.
England dominated the first half in terms of territory and possession. The defending champions unsurprisingly held the lead at the break but when SA scored their second try through Augustus, after the halftime hooter sounded, it was the Junior Boks that went into the shed with a spring in their step.
England probably should have scored at least one more try for their dominance in that period, but as sloppy as the Junior Boks were with the meagre possession they had, they defended well considering the amount of tackling they had to do.
SA’s set piece also started turning the screws after the opening quarter as they picked off four England lineouts, won three scrum penalties by halftime and added a handful more after the break.
But despite that, there was poor decision-making such as scrumhalf Embrose Papier’s option of a quick tap and go from a scrum penalty just inside England’s half. Papier sniped and his offload went to ground, allowing England to reverse the pressure.
Libbok also made a weak start, grounding a routine long kick from Malins. From the ensuing scrum, England took the ball through 14 phases and scored the opening try of the game via Mercer. Minutes later Libbok again butchered another England deep kick by putting his foot on the touchline and SA spent a long time repelling wave after wave of England attack.
Augustus bashed over for his fourth try of the tournament in the 11th minute to put SA on the board but England struck back when Malins’ offload found scrumhalf Alex Mitchell with a clear run to the line.
Bosch added a 73rd minute penalty to stretch the lead to five points. But it was Mercer and England that had the final say.