Baby Blacks fullback Vilimoni Koroi left Australia’s resolute defence in tatters with some stunning skill that turned a tight Trans-Tasman contest in New Zealand’s favour at the World Under-20 Rugby Championships in France.
New Zealand progressed to the semi-finals of the tournament after beating Australia 27-18 in Perpignan on Thursday (Friday NZ time), but there was no clear winner of this absorbing encounter after an hour.
The Baby Blacks were leading by just two points after Australia had fought back from an earlier 14-point deficit, while enjoying long periods of possession and running over New Zealand’s scrum, but suddenly Koroi sparked into life with an inspirational play that proved to be the match-winning moment.
In the 63rd minute, the 20-year-old caught a cleared kick in touch, threw in field for a quick one-two pass with Billy Proctor and ran down the left edge, sizing up his options, before standing up two Australian players with a devastating step inside that left defenders for dead.
Koroi then burst into the gap he had opened up with his lighting speed and drew one defender before a simple pass inside to Jamie Spowart, who went over for New Zealand’s decisive third try.
It was the kind of move Koroi has been learning to craft while starring for New Zealand’s sevens team in the World Series ever since his first call-up last year.
Australia had no answer and couldn’t register a point in the final 17 minutes as their tournament ended following pool defeats to Wales and New Zealand.
The Baby Blacks march on to face hosts France in their semifinal at 7am on Wednesday morning (NZ time). England and South Africa also reached the last four.
New Zealand coach Craig Philpott described his team’s win as “fantastic” considering the pressure Australia put them under.
“We have obviously had some relatively comfortable victories leading up to tonight but we knew Australia would throw the kitchen sink at us and they certainly did and it’s really pleasing to come away with a result,” Philpott said.
He felt his side hadn’t helped themselves at times but was impressed by their composure, especially close to halftime as Australia closed to 17-15 off some healthy territory and possession advantages.
“We probably put ourselves under quite a bit of pressure … we didn’t quite execute our kick plan and had to absorb a lot of pressure, particularly in the back end of that first half,” Philpott said.
“But that’s the way it works and I was really pleased we were able to regroup. There was some good chat at halftime and we were really clear with how we wanted to play the game in the second half.”
That included a much stronger scrum effort after they had given up a penalty try to Australia.
“We reassessed our strategy and talked about wanting to scrum longer and I thought we did that better in the second half.”
Philpott said next week’s semifinal against France would be a huge experience in front of a vocal home crowd with the match to be played at the same venue in Perpignan.
“I’m picking there will be a few people turn up and I’m picking it will be pretty noisy and not many of them will be cheering for us,” he said after more than 10,000 fans attended the trans-Tasman battle in the south of France.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to play the home nation in a world championship semifinal. I’m sure it will be a marvellous experience for everyone and we’re really excited about it and looking forward to it.”