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Baby Blacks win U-20 Rugby Championship

New Zealand have won the inaugural Rugby Championship Under-20 tournament, defeating Australia 36-25 in the final fixture on the Sunshine Coast.

The 'Baby Blacks' victory meant they were the only undefeated side in the tournament.


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Things threatened to unravel for New Zealand in the 53rd minute when right wing King Maxwell was yellow-carded for accidentally colliding with an Australian receiver leaping to catch a kick. 

Down 19-13, Australian left wing Harry McLaughlin-Phillips scored two tries in the vacant space King would have been defending. Aussie first-five Harry McLaughlin, who has made six appearances in Super Rugby Pacific for the Queensland Reds, was quick to exploit the space.

New Zealand steadied the ship in the 65th minute when hooker Manumaua Letiu rumbled over for a try after earlier being held up.

Openside Johnny Lee seized the initiative by tapping the ball from a penalty and it was not the first time the Crusaders Super Rugby Under-20 winning captain would stamp his blueprint on proceedings. Rico Simpson converted, and the visitors regained the lead 26-25.         

New Zealand Under-20 rugby Baby Blacks
New Zealand won the inaugural Rugby Championship Under-20 tournament. PHOTO: NZ RUGBY/ACTION PRESS

In the 68th minute, New Zealand struck another hurdle when Simpson was yellow-carded for a rather innocuous ‘crocodile roll.’

Simpson had made a try-saving tackle by rolling an Australian player onto his back in the in-goal area and had a hand in creating two tries. His gliding style is eerily reminiscent of Wallabies Rugby World Cup-winning first-five Stephen Larkham.

Instead of imploding, New Zealand’s forwards showed the discipline and rhythm of a symphony orchestra. Australia was deprived of possession and infringed allowing reserve fullback Sam Coles to chip over a penalty and extend to 29-25. 

New Zealand marched authoritatively back inside Australian territory and after 17 phases, centre Xavi Taele carried three players over the chalk.

It was fitting centre Taele would apply an exclamation mark. He has had an outstanding campaign and set up a try for speedy halfback Dylan Pledger.

The contribution of Letiu off the bench was immense, also faultless with his lineout throws. Andrew Smith and Jeremiah Avei-Collins also added muscle.

Earlier, McLaughlin-Phillips opened the scoring with a penalty in the third minute. New Zealand scored the first try when Simpson, Taele, and fullback Isaac Hutchinson combined to put whippet wing Stanley Solomon clear.

Australia created plenty of chances, but Hutchinson snuffed out dangerous second-five Ronan Leahy and Lee bundled fullback Angus Staniforth into touch when it looked likely the cousin of former Wallabies wing Scott Staniforth would write a headline.

The hustle of Lee would create New Zealand’s second try. Maxwell kicked into space. Australian wing Xavier Rubens retrieved and was caught by Lee causing him to throw a panic pass which Solomon leapt like Dylan Schmidt to snaffle and sprint 40m.

Australian blindside Lee Ekanayake proved a real handful and twice kicked the ball more than 50m. It was openside Dane Sawers who bustled over for Australia’s first try in the 49th minute after a sustained forward assault. 

In the earlier match, South Africa beat Argentina 30-28 meaning each side enjoyed a victory but New Zealand stayed ahead of Argentina, who had beaten Australia in the opening round.

New Zealand 36 (Stanley Solomon 2, Dylan Pledger, Manumaua Letiu, Xavi Taele tries; Rico Simpson 3 con, Sam Coles pen, con) Australia 25 (Dane Sawers, Will McCulloch 2 tries; Harry McLaughlin-Phillips 2 pen, 2 con)


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