England narrowly missed out on a third consecutive World Rugby U20 Championship title despite an early try from Bath Rugby’s Max Clark as New Zealand triumphed 21-16 in the final at Cremona Stadium.
England beat South Africa and Wales in the last two finals but found the four-time champion Baby Blacks a different proposition.
The reigning champions actually beat New Zealand 33-21 the last time the two sides met back in 2013 but this time around Clark’s score was cancelled out by a Vince Aso try before highly-regarded No.8 Akira Ioane landed the decisive blow shortly after half-time.
The boot of Rory Jennings did keep the Red Rose in touch but they couldn’t find the pivotal score to level things up in Italy as their opponents lifted the trophy for the first time since 2011.
England head coach Jon Callard named an unchanged line-up, keeping faith with the XV that started the hard-fought 28-20 semi-final win over South Africa on Monday.
It was New Zealand who made the majority of the early running but back-row duo James Chisholm of Harlequins and Northampton Saints’ Lewis Ludlam kept them at bay with some ferocious work at the breakdown.
Bath lit up Aviva Premiership Rugby this season and although they lost in the final to Saracens, their future appears to be bright with the likes of Clark ready to make an impact.
And the inside centre demonstrated what a prodigious talent he is by notching the game’s first try with just three minutes on the clock – picking the perfect line to scythe through a helpless Baby Blacks defence before putting on the afterburners to touch down.
His Bath teammate, and former schoolmate, Jennings duly added the extras but the trusty boot of Otere Black soon narrowed the gap to 7-3.
Jennings then restored the seven-point advantage as the England pack continued to dominate their southern hemisphere counterparts.
But New Zealand are known for the game-changing ability of their backs and replacement winger Aso crashed over with his first touch 15 minutes before the break, although Black failed to convert.
Callard’s troops’ chances of finally beating the Baby Blacks in a World Rugby U20 Championship final, at the fourth time of asking, then suffered a blow as Saracens full-back Aaron Morris was forced off injured, Wasps’ Piers O’Conor coming on to replace him.
And Black made amends for his earlier miss just before half-time as he capitalised on the Red Rose’s ill-discipline to land a penalty, putting his side a point ahead at the interval – a lead they never surrendered thereafter.
New Zealand struck first in the second period as dangerman, and former Sevens superstar, Ioane went over from close range following patient build-up play – Black successfully converting.
At 18-10 down, England were in danger of having the game slip away from them but when Ioane went from hero to villain by being sin-binned for a high tackle, Jennings kept them in touch with a penalty.
Northampton speedster Howard Packman then looked to have scored a scintillating try after collecting a chip and racing clear but saw it ruled out for offside.
Jennings and Black traded three-pointers to make the score 21-16 and although England began to turn the screw, the Baby Blacks defence held firm in the face of adversity.
The Bath fly-half missed a penalty ten minutes from time and despite throwing the proverbial kitchen sink at New Zealand, Callard’s men couldn’t force a late try as they fell agonisingly short of a historic third straight title.