Wales U20’s kicked off their World Rugby U20’s Championship with a win against the Junior Wallabies last night, with Cai Evans slotting 16 points to seal the victory.
A red wave of defence – coupled with a tireless ambition to attack, kept Wales holding on to win 26-21 at the Stade de la Méditerranée. Wales banished any memories of 2017's last-gasp defeat to Australia at the same stage of this tournament.
The Aussies drew first blood in Béziers, however: scrum-half and captain Ryan Lonergan punishing a Welsh indiscretion at the breakdown with a third-minute penalty from just inside Wales’ 10m line.
A great phase of attacking play by Wales, with inside centre Ioan Nicholas the catalyst, then offered a glimpse of their willingness to run the ball from anywhere on the park. The opposition was subsequently penalised for coming in at the side of the ruck, and fullback Cai Evans’s power from the tee saw the ball sail through the posts for the equaliser.
Nearing the end of the first quarter, Wales lost wing Rio Dyer to injury, replaced by fellow Dragon Joe Goodchild. He would soon have a telling impact on proceedings.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, Australia conceded a penalty for failing to release. Wales fell just short with the shot at goal that would have nudged them ahead. However, Evans made no mistake when presented with a similar opportunity a moment later – albeit this time further out; on the halfway line no less – wowing the crowd with his long-range effort to make it 3-6.
Just before the half-hour, Aussie fly-half Bayley Kuenzie kicked a scrum penalty to the corner. A quickly-won lineout and a pin-point crossfield kick later, and wing James Ramm was acrobatically tapping the ball down in mid-air for incoming fullback Mack Hansen to score an excellent try. Lonergan’s conversion attempt was wide: 8-6. Gone 30 minutes, razor-sharp Wales scrum-half Dane Blacker took a quick tap deep inside the opposition 22. The young men in red had their tails up now, and once the ball was in fly-half Ben Jones’s hand, the Cardiff Blues man wasted little in time kicking through a bouncing ball that was pounced on by Nicholas for the try. Evans converted to give Wales a five-point lead: 8-13.
The Junior Wallabies hit back with another Lonergan penalty, but there was a lot more to come from Geraint Lewis’s team.
A scintillating outside break and fend by Corey Baldwin set the Scarlets centre up for a one-on-one with the last man in defence for Australia, by which point replacement Goodchild was well in support for Wales’ second try with three minutes to go in the first 40. Evans’s excellent conversion from the touchline made it 11-20.
Two minutes into the second half, and the Ospreys fullback produced another cannon of a penalty kick – this one only marginally inside the Australian half – to take Wales 12 points to the good: 11-23.
The Junior Wallabies put their sizeable scrum to good use in winning another penalty in the 48th minute, allowing Lonergan to slot a penalty inside Wales’ 22: 14-23.
Both sides had started to test each other aerially, but a period of ten minutes’ deadlock – memorable for a fantastically determined carry by Wales number eight Taine Basham – ended when Evans’s metronomic boot took the scores to 14-26.
Wales, up fast in defence, and led by the imposing figure of lock Max Williams and a Trojan-like back row featuring Basham, Dan Davis and captain Tommy Reffell, led the way in frustrating the Aussies in the final quarter.
New caps Will Davies-King and Rhys Davies in the front row were two of the well-judged second-half replacements made by the Welsh coaches, countering the big men Australia had also introduced. Never ones to go gently into the night, Australia roared back into the game with a try from replacement back Tate McDermott with fewer than three minutes remaining. Inside centre Isaac Lucas converted to make it 21-26.
Showing the same sort of dogged composure that earned them victory in Donnybrook during the U20 Six Nations earlier this year, Wales ran down the clock to seal a thrilling win.
Wales now sit in second place in Pool A, just behind New Zealand U20’s who they face in their next pool game on Sunday 3rd June K.O 3:30pm.