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Five 2023 U20 Championship players who are already playing Test rugby

By Liam Heagney
France's Posolo Tuilagi lifts Ireland's Fintan Gunne in the 2023 final in Athlone (Photo by World Rugby via Getty Images)

It was last July in Cape Town when France completed their hat-trick of World Rugby U20 Championship titles following a four-year wait. They had captured honours in Beziers and Rosario in 2018 and 2019 only to have designs on a three-peat iced until 2023 due to the pandemic cancellation of the tournament.

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Their patience was rewarded with a final win over Ireland at Athlone, which brought to an end a compelling renewal of the U20s age-grade that included Italy producing a magical pool upset versus hosts South Africa in the Paarl mud.

Multiple stars were born, especially from the better performing European teams who had the advantage of having a taxing Six Nations tournament some months earlier which helped to give them an advantage versus their southern hemisphere rivals.

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

That leg-up has remained evident in the post-tournament legacy where some players from France, England and Wales have become Test caps featuring in the recent Guinness Six Nations.

An Ireland rookie has also just embarked on his country’s two-Test series tour of South Africa as an uncapped inclusion. Here are five stars from the 2023 U20 Championship who have enjoyed a fast-track 11 months up the representative ladder:

Posolo Tuilagi (France)
A late arrival in South Africa due to a visa issue, the Samoan-born second row giant announced himself to the world in the Paarl mud when he skittled New Zealand in a second-round pool match and then gave an interview in the rain to RugbyPass that quickly went viral.

A son of Henry, he was three when the family moved to France after a few years in England while dad played for Leicester. Tuilagi, whose weight is in and around the 145kg mark, came into the U20s tournament having already made a Top 14 breakthrough at Perpignan.

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Not only has he consolidated his place at the club, but he has also become a Test-level pick for Fabian Galthie’s France, debuting off the bench last February versus Ireland and winning two more caps since then.

Is now set to tour Argentina with the senior squad even though he would have been eligible to return to South Africa for the 2024 U20 Championship as he only turns 20 years at the end of July.

Chandler Cunningham-South (England)
The back-rower arrived in Cape Town having enjoyed a breakthrough season at London Irish in the Gallagher Premiership. It was the Thursday before the start of the tournament when RugbyPass caught up with the bubbly character whose effervescent personality shone through even though he had spent the past few weeks redundant after the collapse of the Exiles.

Born in England, he grew up in New Zealand and only returned to the land of his birth in February 2022 when offered a spot in the Irish academy. About the move, he told RugbyPass, “It’s a 27-hour flight, I wasn’t coming to mess around.”

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He sure hasn’t. Soon confirmed as a Harlequins signing, he blasted his way through the U20s tournament with a bruising effort and his continuation of that physical presence in the Premiership with Quins over the winter resulted in a call from Steve Borthwick last January.

Went on to play off the Test bench on four occasions during the Six Nations before his 21st birthday on March 18, his run of selection only ended by an injury versus Ireland. Has since bounced back, starting the first Test match of his career in last Saturday’s win over Japan in Tokyo.

Cameron Winnett (Wales)
It was a busy Tuesday in Cape Town last year when RugbyPass caught up with the Welsh full-back on the first floor of his team’s hotel on Strand Street. We had just come off a Zoom with Sam Warburton, who had confessed he only knew the youngster by name and not by reputation.

Six months later when we touched base with Warburton again, he now knew all about Winnett as he had impressively started the season with Cardiff and the former Wales captain reckoned he would be a rookie pick in the Warren Gatland squad for the 2024 Six Nations.

So it proved. After turning 21 on January 7, he was soon running on the Test pitch and so comfortable was he in that environment he went on to start all five games in that campaign and he is now Australia-bound following a sixth cap in last Saturday’s defeat to the Springboks in London.

That’s quite the feat given the ambition he told RugbyPass 11 months ago that he had for 2023/24. “I’m still young and don’t want to get too ahead of myself. I need to take every moment as it comes, but I definitely want to start having more game time with Cardiff. That is probably my aim next year.”

Nicolas Depoortere (France)
The midfielder, who already had a dozen first-team outings at Bordeaux on his CV, was at the creative heart of the title-winning French team. His handling was especially eye-catching and he has taken that success to an even greater level this season.

Not only has he become a talisman of the Bordeaux team that has qualified for this Saturday’s Top 14 final versus Toulouse, but he became another youngster who caught the eye of Galthie as he was capped twice during the Six Nations after turning 21 on January 13.

Sam Prendergast (Ireland)
Unlike the quartet mentioned above, the Ireland youngster has yet to be capped at Test level but he is now very much in the frame after Andy Farrell included him in the squad for the series against the world champion Springboks.

It was February 12 when he turned 21 and there was talk since then of a possible loan switch to Connacht for the 2024/25 season as his older brother Cian plays there. However, that move has since been squashed.

He finished the season with 16 Leinster appearances and while just four were as a starter, his tour selection by Farrell ahead of the Byrne brothers suggests a change in the provincial pecking order is likely next season following another trophy-less campaign from Leo Cullen’s side.

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1 Comment
G
Gerry 22 days ago

Here we go again eh,Leinster trophyless again. I think you'll find there have only been 2 seperate clubs who have won the champions cup in the last 3 seasons,La Rochelle and Toulouse. 3 seperate clubs have won the Urc.That's 5 teams,so all the rest of the clubs have been trophyless. You would think Leinster were the only team that played Rugby!!!

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finn 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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