Alex Shaw's top 25 all-time U20 rugby players
Since the U20 classification was created and used in rugby from 2008, the age-grade pathway has produced an abundance of the game’s current difference-makers at the senior international level.
Not every player that impresses at this level goes on to do likewise at the senior level and vice versa, a number of players who slipped through the net at U20s will develop later and go on to forge out highly-successful international careers. That said, the U20s pathway has proven to be a generally reliable indicator of future impact.
Our writer Alex Shaw has followed age-grade rugby closely for the past decade and has ranked the 25 most impressive performers he has seen at the U20 level over that period of time. You can also check out his top 50 from this year’s group of eligible players.
Southern hemisphere honourable mentions – Manuel Ardao (Uruguay), Juarno Augustus (South Africa), Angus Bell (Australia), Vilimoni Botitu (Fiji), Santiago Carreras (Argentina), Tevita Li (New Zealand), Hanro Liebenberg (South Africa), Atu Moli (New Zealand), RG Snyman (South Africa), Lucio Sordoni (Argentina), Apitoni Toia (Tonga), Jeremy Ward (South Africa), Damian Willemse (South Africa)
Northern hemisphere honourable mentions – Corey Baldwin (Wales), Sam Davies (Wales), Peter Dooley (Ireland), Caelan Doris (Ireland), Zander Fagerson (Scotland), Jean-Baptiste Gros (France), Ted Hill (England), Callum Hunter-Hill (Scotland), Nick Isiekwe (England), Harri Keddie (Wales), Jack Kelly (Ireland), Giovanni Licata (Italy), Joe Marchant (England), Romain Ntamack (France), Marco Riccioni (Italy), Anthony Watson (England)
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- Zach Mercer, England
Mercer’s time in the U20s was a fun period, as it pitched him against South Africa’s Juarno Augustus, Italy’s Giovanni Licata and Ireland’s Caelan Doris. All four have gone on to do well after age-grade rugby, although it was Mercer’s burst and dynamism that separated him from the crowd back then, something which is still showing up consistently in senior rugby.
- Rhys Carre, Wales
Very few props could pull off the set-piece solidity and rare physical gifts in the loose at U18 level – where player disparity is usually larger – that Carre managed to achieve at U20 level. Front rowers naturally take longer to mature but is already replicating that with Saracens and Wales and looks like Gethin Jenkins’ heir apparent.
- Owen Watkin, Wales
Back-to-back Welsh players here, with Watkin looking to the manor born when he first made the breakthrough at U20 level, a year earlier than many of his teammates. He looked to be perfectly suited to Warren Gatland’s physical preferences in the centres and could yet establish himself as one of Wayne Pivac’s go-to players in the coming years.
- Bautista Pedemonte, Argentina
Pedemonte would have been eligible for his third season with the Argentina U20 side this year had the tournament not been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He has the skill set to provide any of the traditional back row stereotypes and should begin to feature prominently with the Jaguares and Argentina in the build-up to the next Rugby World Cup.
- Garry Ringrose, Ireland
Ringrose’s excellent stepping ability, decisiveness and power in the contact were all apparent at the U20 level and he was tipped as a full Ireland international very quickly. In an age-grade where the larger nations often dominate thanks to the physical ability on offer in their player pools, Ringrose was a nice riposte from Ireland.
- Fraser McReight, Australia
Coming hot on the heels of Liam Wright, McReight has a challenging pathway ahead of him at club and international level, though his proficiency over the ball in 2019 was extraordinary. It may well be that one of Wright or McReight will need to leave Queensland to fully realise their potential, but Dave Rennie could do worse than get McReight acclimatised to international rugby now.
- Joel Kpoku, England
The big second row spent two years excelling for the England U20s, so much so that he received a lucrative offer from Northampton Saints this season that Saracens were only just able to fend off. He has impressed in the absence of Saracens’ international contingent this season and will form part of their rebuild in the Championship later this year.
- Nathan Earle, England
Once, rather enthusiastically, dubbed a combination of Jason Robinson and Israel Folau, Earle’s development has been hindered by injury and a bottleneck of opportunity at Saracens. He flourished after moving to Quins, although injury has again halted his international ambitions, and a full cap would seem to be a matter of when, not if now.
- Curwin Bosch, South Africa
The versatile fly-half/full-back had his fair share of growing pains after emerging from an extremely successful couple of seasons in the U20s, although he is now cementing his place with the Sharks and receiving plenty of calls for a role with the Springboks. As an U20, he was just a split second ahead of his opponents with his speed of thought and skill execution.
- Charles Piutau, New Zealand
One of New Zealand’s lauded 2011 U20 side, Piutau shone even in that group, with their final win over England arguably the most challenging of their four-year streak of titles. That Piutau has less than 20 international caps is a shame, although he has more than shown his ability at club level with the Blues, Wasps, Ulster and now Bristol Bears.
- Paul Hill, England
At U20 level, Hill looked for all money as though he was on a trajectory to being one of, if not the most dominant tighthead in senior rugby. He took apart all the looseheads he played against, including the formidable Thomas du Toit, although after being drafted in initially by Eddie Jones, he hasn’t quite been able to make the impact he would have wanted at the elite senior level.
- Demba Bamba, France
There were few players as enjoyable to watch over the last few years as Bamba and that was particularly true of his time in the U20s. Alongside Jean-Baptiste Gros, the French scrum was dominant at the World Rugby U20 Championship and Bamba’s contributions in the loose were as influential as any player at the tournament.
- Junior Pokomela, South Africa
Pokomela ticked all the boxes in the back row for the South Africa U20s. Not only was he a dynamic ball-carrier, physical tackler and played with an impressive work rate, he was also a captain and leader. With the Cheetahs often under the pump in the Guinness PRO14, it can be hard for the loose forward to impress, but he still manages to regularly catch the eye.
- Marcos Kremer, Argentina
From one of the most physically gifted locks to play U20 rugby to now one of the fastest rising back rowers in Super Rugby, Kremer has become a mainstay for the Argentinean national side. He is uncompromising in defence and at the attacking breakdown, whilst his ball-carrying can get his side front-foot ball against even the most well-drilled of defences.
- Beauden Barrett, New Zealand
Even at full-back, with Gareth Anscombe occupying the 10 jersey, there was something clearly special about Barrett at U20 level. He didn’t necessarily look like someone who would go on to become arguably the best fly-half in world rugby, but he did look like a player who was certainly going to be a difference-maker at international level.
- Luke Cowan-Dickie, England
Like Bamba, Cowan-Dickie delivered brilliantly in both the tight and the loose at U20 level and looked for all money like England’s senior hooker in waiting. After some early stutters at the set-piece in the senior game, Cowan-Dickie worked hard to get that area of his game up to the level of his loose play and is unlucky to be behind the late development Jamie George went through.
- Sekou Macalou, France
Before the likes of Bamba, Romain Ntamack and Arthur Vincent came on the scene, Macalou was the poster boy for iterations of the French squad that boasted talent but rarely were able to come together and form a cohesive team at the highest level. He was a class apart in the U20 sides he featured in, though his development with Stade Français has not been as smooth as he would have liked.
- Brodie Retallick, New Zealand
There was a completeness to Retallick’s game even at the U20 level and though he didn’t flash in the loose like one or two ahead of him here, there was no aspect of his skill set that you would have been particularly critical of. He has risen to become arguably the best lock in world rugby and that’s a credit to his post-20s development, although the foundations were in place even then.
- James Ryan, Ireland
The Irish lock, like Ringrose before him, stood out with his physical ability in an Irish side that was cohesive and well coached, although didn’t necessarily have the star athletes that some other nations could call upon. A leader by example on the pitch and as technically skilled as he was blessed by natural size and speed, Ryan’s rise to the top has been no surprise.
- Asafo Aumua, New Zealand
As far as U20 performances go, there has arguably been no player as dominant as Aumua, with the New Zealand hooker having left crumpled bodies and grasping hands in his wake repeatedly. Making that transition to the senior game has been more of a challenge for the hooker, although he has flashed that ability at times for the Hurricanes.
- Jordan Joseph, France
Similar to Aumua, Joseph has blown people away with what he has been able to do at the U20 level, boasting a physicality that few can match. He will need to develop the technical side of his game if he is to similarly flourish in the senior arena, though he has plenty of time on his side, as he is still eligible for the U20s this year.
- Malcolm Marx, South Africa
Marx was a force of nature in the U20s, carrying and tackling with a vicious edge that set him apart even from the rest of the abrasive South African age-grade side. Some inconsistency at the lineout aside, the hooker has flourished in the senior game and few players can match his game-decisive involvements when he is in the mood.
- Sam Cane, New Zealand
Cane was fast-tracked into Super Rugby involvement during his time in the U20s and even then, he was being tabbed as the long-term replacement for the legendary Richie McCaw. The 2011 World Rugby U20 Championship final remains one of the most compelling games at any level over the past decade, thanks in large due to the involvement of players such as Cane.
- Maro Itoje, England
As complete a player as you are likely to find at this level, Itoje was the full package of being a technically refined and physically gifted leader on the pitch. There was no challenge in identifying that Itoje’s star was going to continue to rise after he lifted the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2014 in New Zealand and you suspect higher captaincy honours await.
- Will Jordan, New Zealand
The silky-running full-back could not look like more of a New Zealand rugby player if he tried. A head injury has prevented him from bursting on to the scene fully so far, though the future is extremely bright for this young Crusader. His incision in the back line and ability to find and exploit space was second to none at this level.
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