"Our goal was to win this thing": Junior Wallabies one step away from fulfilling year-long target

World Rugby U20s Championship
by Emma Greenwood

Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore said his team's sights are firmly set on winning the U20 world championships - and they've been there for five months.

Gilmore revealed the bold - and long-standing - goal of the Junior Wallabies after they took another step towards fulfilling it by beating Argentina 34-13 in the semi-finals.

In a herculean effort, the Junior Wallabies progressed to the final against France despite playing with 14 men for the second half.

Scrumhalf Michael McDonald was given a second yellow card for a high tackle when attempting to prevent a try after the halftime hooter, with Australia conceding a penalty try in the process that allowed Argentina to claw to within four points at the break.

McDonald will face a World Rugby judiciary on Wednesday morning (AEST), with the Junior Wallabies hoping to save McDonald from a suspension by contesting one or both of his yellow card offences.


But the Junior Wallabies kept the Pumitas scoreless while scoring two tries of their own, their urgency and incredible defensive effort eventually proving the difference as the as Argentina made several errors attempting to catch up.

It is only Australia's second visit to the world junior final and their first since 2010, a tournament also held in Argentina. They have never won the title.

Gilmore revealed post-match that despite being considered by many as a contender in 2019, the Junior Wallabies set themselves the target at the start of the year of claiming Australia's first ever crown.

"The boys have got a lot of belief in what we're doing at the moment and they back themselves," Gilmore told RUGBY.com.au

"But the job's not yet done.

"We got together in January and one of our goals was to win this thing. Making the semi-finals wasn't a reward for us, it was just another step in the process.

"We've achieved what we've wanted to do to play in the final but now we've got to aim up for another 80 minutes and win it."

They will take on France on Sunday morning (Australian time) after the defending champions - who finished second in their group to Argentina - beat South Africa 20-7 in the second semi-final.

 

Captain Fraser McReight, who was outstanding in defence, effecting several turnovers in the second half, praised the courage of his team.

"We were on the ropes at the end of that first half being up by four points and giving away that red card," McReight said.

"I'm so proud of the boys. Playing with 14 men and not conceding a point is unreal.

Gilmore was thrilled with his team's defensive effort.

"We were pretty keen to get back into it because we weren't happy with that first half against England even though we were a man short," he said.

"The boys wanted to make sure they picked that (defence) up again today, which they did."

Having played a man short against England for all but the opening two minutes of the game and fighting back to win the second half may have given the Junior Wallabies confidence they could match it with Argentina but Gilmore denied it had been a "help".

Backrower Harry Wilson was one of Australia's best in their win over Argentina. Photo: Rugby AU Media

"Probably the red cards at this tournament are becoming too much of an occurrence," he said.

"But I suppose playing 78 minutes a man short and then you get it again for this game (means your defence has to be on song) and it's certainly something we're going to continue into the next game."

McDonald will face the tournament judiciary to determine whether he is free to play the final.

The Junior Wallabies were without regular flyhalf Will Harrison, due to a head knock he suffered late in their final pool match against England, with Ben Donaldson wearing the no.10.

And he stood up brilliantly under pressure, playing a steady hand in the halves when McDonald was yellow carded early in the first half before combining seamlessly with Henry Robertson in the second term while amassing 19 points to be awarded players' player.

"Benny delivered what we know he can deliver. He's played a fair bit of first grade this year for Randwick in the Shute Shield and he's been battle hardened from club footy and we knew he could do a job," Gilmore said.

Isaac Lucas is tackled in the Junior Wallabies' win over Argentina. Photo: World Rugby

Lightning had stopped play in Rosario earlier in the day, with kick-off in the semi-final delayed by more than half an hour, while heavy rain over the 24 hours prior to kick-off left the ground at the Racecourse Stadium in Rosario heavy underfoot.

The Australians adapted best to the conditions, although the greasy ball did not stop them from chancing their arm on occasion. 

The Argentinians have built their campaign on bruising defence and it was on show in the opening stages when they successfully repelled the Aussies deep in their own territory.

Noah Lolesio prepares to lead a charge off the bench at the fulltime hooter. Photo:  Guillermo Buelga

But the Australians still opened the scoring, with Donaldson converting a penalty in the 11th minute for a 3-0 lead, although he missed another shot just five minutes later.

The Junior Wallabies were left a man down in the 20th minute after scrumhalf Michael McDonald was handed a yellow card following a dangerous tackle on Argentinian forward Manuel Bernstein, who flipped spectacularly before landing on his back.

 

The officials took into account the fact that Bernstein had leapt into the tackle though, contributing to being upended as McDonald was attempting to make a low tackle, leaving the offence short of a red card.Joaquin de la Vega Mendia converted the penalty to get the teams back on level footing but it was the Aussies that hit back almost immediately, with flanker Harry Wilson scoring under the posts.

The Junior Wallabies' defence continued to hold firm while they were a man down, with de la Vega Mendia converting a second penalty just before McDonald retook the field.

McDonald dived over for the Junior Wallabies' second try late in the half, backing up well to take a pass from Noah Lolesio who had burst through the line to create the chance.

Centre Noah Lolesio takes the ball up in the Junior Wallabies' U20 world championship semi-final win over Argentina. Photo: World Rugby

Donaldson's conversion gave Australia a 17-6 lead they seemed set to take into halftime before a two minutes of madness changed the match.

A McDonald box kick into touch seconds from the hooter gave the Argentinians a lineout and last-ditch chance to score before the break and when the scrumhalf made a desperate tackle attempting to prevent the Pumitas from scoring in the corner, he caught the player high and conceded a penalty try and earnt a second yellow card, banishing him from the rest of the match.

Gilmore brought reserve half Henry Robertson on for the second half, deciding to play without a winger, Sione Tui making way to leave the Junior Wallabies with 14 men.

It did not stop them from playing attacking football though.

Michael McDonald (left) and Isaac Lucas (right) ready to pounce on the loose ball for Australia in the Junior Wallabies' semi-final win over Argentina. Photo: World Rugby

McReight spurned a shot at goal from a penalty early in the second half, opting instead for a lineout deep in Argentinian territory, with hooker Lachlan Lonergan driving over from the resulting maul to give Australia a valuable 24-13 lead with the conversion.

A desperate tackle from fullback Isaac Lucas forced the Pumitas into touch just before they grounded the ball for what had initially looked a try.

And it was Australia who again made the most of their chances, with Donaldson kicking ahead of inside his own half and winning the race to the ball to score and put the Wallabies up by 15 points with 25 minutes remaining.

 

The Junior Wallabies defence was outstanding in the final stages, with backrowers McReight, Harry Wilson and Will Harris pilfering the ball on several occasions and the backs chiming in on several occasions to hold up ball runners and force turnovers.

Donaldson iced the result with a conversion from another turnover and penalty late in the match, taking his personal tally to 19 points.

"I think the boys absorbed the pressure really well," Gilmore said.

Australia centre Semisi Tupou is tackled in their semi-final win against Argentina .Photo: Leo Galletto/World Rugby.

"That second half we didn't have any territory in the top 50 and our defence had to hold solid for 40 minutes and then the opportunities we did get in that second half we managed to convert into points.

"The boys' ability to stay composed in that second 40 was really pleasing."

RESULT

Junior Wallabies 34

Tries: Wilson, McDonald, Lonergan, Donaldson

Cons: Donaldson 4

Pens: Donaldson 2

Argentina 13

Tries: Penalty try

Pens: De la Vega Mendia 2,