Our rugby scribe takes a look at the U20 Championship being held in June in Manchester, England.
We still have a plethora of rugby action heading your way despite the Super Rugby season having gone into a month-long break. While the June Internationals are likely to steal the show, there’s also the IRB Under 20 Championship to keep us entertained.
The tournament will take place in Manchester this year and will run from the 7th to the 25th of June. The betting stakes are likely to be headed by defending champions New Zealand who are projected to open up at around evens.
A lot of noise has been made by South African coach Dawie Theron, who reckons he has a very exciting side under his wings. Another side who could possibly end up causing an upset is Australia. The Junior Wallabies managed to get one over tournament favourites New Zealand in an Oceania Championship game a few weeks back.
So will it be one of the underdogs who take this year’s championship or will the Junior All Blacks add yet another trophy to the New Zealand Rugby Union’s cabinet?
Teams: Georgia, Ireland, New Zealand, and Wales
The New Zealanders are strong favourites to top this group. While Irish youth structures have come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years they are still no match for the New Zealand youth conveyor belt that churns out the most talented youth rugby players year in and year out.
Speaking of talented Junior All Blacks, a player to keep an eye out for in this tournament is Jordie Barrett. The brother of Hurricanes pivot Beauden Barrett will become the third Barrett sibling to represent the ‘Baby Blacks’ in the space of five years with Beauden having shone at the 2011 event and middle brother Scott participating in the 2013 event. Like his eldest brother, Jordie is a mercurial ten who has a penchant for five-pointers. He has loads of gas and is a decent enough defender.
While my money is firmly on the Kiwis topping this group, I do think Wales could give them a bit of a run. The Junior Dragons are a bit of an interesting prospect. They won the 2016 Under 20 Six Nations and claimed a Grand Slam (they didn’t lose a single game during their campaign). They will once again lean on talented ten Dan Jones. The Llanelli Scarlets young gun has enjoyed a terrific start to the year and managed to rack up 20 points when Wales met Ireland in the Junior Six Nations. He’s definitely a youngster to keep an eye on.
As for the final two sides in the group, I can’t really see the Irish doing anything and the Georgian Under 20s are unlikely to emulate their senior sides 2015 World Cup exploits which saw them actually win a game.
Teams: Australia, England, Italy, and Scotland
This is definitely the most interesting of the three pools. The hosts for this year’s tournament have managed to retain the services of their 2015 stalwarts; George Perkins Josh Baignbridge, and Jack Walker – who plays in his third U20 Championship. The Australians also have a hugely talented squad which features five players who have turned out in this year’s Super Rugby tournament while Scotland also have a handy squad who finished this year’s U20 Six Nations tournament above the English. As for Italy, well they’re a lot like their senior squad; plucky but destined to lose 99.9 percent of their fixtures.
The Australians are the team to watch here. Their players with Super Rugby experience will bring a different dimension to the game. Queensland Reds centre Campbell Magnay is certainly one to watch. The 19 –year-old has impressed for his franchise this term. His hard running and solid defensive game will greatly enhance the Junior Wallabies' chances of going all the way in this tournament. He’s not the only Junior Wallaby that could make a difference however, as both James Tuttle and Sione Tuipolotu have also demonstrated their skills on the Super Rugby stage. Tuttle is a nuggety nine with a brilliant box kick while Tuipoloto – who became the first Melbourne-born player to sign with the Melbourne Rebels – is a classy outside centre with blistering acceleration.
So we’ve established that the Wallabies have the best playing personal but will they be able to replicate their senior squad's achievements by getting one over the old enemy in their own backyard? If I had to go on current form, my answer would be a resounding yes! But England are different animal on their home patch. They have a solid and experienced squad, which in fairness, hasn’t really fired this year but is still capable of giving the Wallabies a real run.
It’s going to be a thoroughly enjoyable pool to watch and the game between England and Australia will definitely decide who tops the pops. If the Australians don’t get the jitters and perform to their capabilities then they should wrap up top spot here.
Teams: Argentina, France, Japan, and South Africa
We're on to the final group now and while it’s unlikely to be as tight as Pool B it should still throw up some highly entertaining clashes. The Baby ‘Boks will be strong favourites to top this one while the Argentines and French are likely to battle it out for second spot. As for the Japanese, well I have to brutally honest here and admit that I have little knowledge of the make-up of their side but I suspect they'll be a wholehearted bunch whose physique's are a lot less robust than that of their opponents.
There’s a lot being made about the brand of rugby that Junior Springbok coach Dawie Theron is imploring his squad to implement. The veteran under 20 mentor has decided to take a much more attacking approach into this campaign than he has in previous years. His reason for this is that his current crop are a lot smaller than the sides he’s previously taken to the Under 20 Championships.
While they aren’t as physically imposing as their predecessors, this Junior Bok squad is certainly is certainly a runner for the title. They have some highly gifted individuals with the likes of junior Shark Curwin Bosch and Kings scrummy James Hall - arguably the most talented of the 28 squad man - likely to provide some fireworks. The duo are likely to the incumbent halfback pairing at this year’s tournament although Bosch was used at fullback during the Junior Boks hit out against South Western Districts last weekend.
I’ve gone with the Baby Boks to top this group but who will finish second? That question is proving rather tough to answer. While France did enjoy a solid Junior Six Nations campaign - which saw them four out of their five games and finish second on the log – you can’t write this Argentine squad off, especially with them having retained nine players who participated at last year’s event. It may be fruitless endeavour trying to figure out which of these sides will make it through to the next round though, as I think the best runner up form all the groups will come from Pool B.
The Stats That Matter
New Zealand have won five out of the eight editions of the tournament since it was established in 2008 while England have one two and South Africa have won once. The Kiwis have won back two back tournaments twice while they also won the last tournament staged in Britain where they defeated England in the final out in Wales.
Australia are likely to be priced up at around 3/1 or 4/1 to win this tournament. And while they’re certainly a left-field call, I just can’t see the Baby Boks or England winning it. My money is on Australia meeting New Zealand in the final on the 25th of June and producing a huge upset.