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In a tense encounter in Padova, Italy, Rob Hunter’s England kept the Baby Boks at bay thanks to tries from Elliot Daly, Gray and Christian Wade, while George Ford weighed in with 11 points from the boot.
South Africa replied with a Nizaam Carr try and five penalties from Johan Goosen, but were denied more scores twice by last-ditch tackles as England held on.
This win booked England an IRB Junior World Championship semi-finals clash with France, a side they beat 19-8 in this year’s RBS 6 Nations, but despite previous success against Les Blues Gray is taken nothing for granted as they aim to reach the final.
“It was definitely one of the hardest matches I’ve played in, especially those last five minutes – I can’t remember being in a game that tense for a long time,” Gray said.
“It’s good to have that experience in the bank though, and hopefully it will stand us in good stead for our semi final against France.
“It was difficult because South Africa were always within touching distance, they’re one of the best sides in the world so it’s hard to stop them – they live on momentum.
“They really came at us and we had to fight until the death – I lost count of the number of try-saving tackles we made.
“Our objective was to stop that momentum and at times we did, and on other occasions we just had to scramble for our lives.
“France are up next for us and even though we beat them in the RBS 6 Nations a few months back that counts for very little. It’s a different ball game out here and they’re in good form, but so are we.”
England started the game with real intent, going up 8-0 thanks to an early Ford penalty and Daly touching down in the corner after beating two men.
Carr then replied for South Africa following a line out and another Ford penalty was followed by two from opposite number Goosen as the sides went into the interval level at 11-11.
But Hunter’s side started the second half just as they did the first as No.8 Gray rounded off an excellent cross-field team move to score in the corner, but Ford’s conversion sailed just wide.
This gave England a lead they never relinquished, although they had Matt Kvesic and Joe Launchberry to thank as the pair made try-saving tackles.
Goosen did add three more penalties but wing Wade’s fourth try of the competition helped England advance, holding on in the dying minutes despite seeing prop Mako Vunipola sinbinned for persistent offences.