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Four World Rugby U20 Championship opening round talking points

By Liam Heagney
The 12 captains at DHL Stadium with Table Mountain in the background (Photo by World Rugby)

Two worlds are set to collide in Cape Town this Saturday when the World Rugby U20 Championship begins. It was 15 weeks ago when the age-grade Six Nations finished in a welter of excitement, England producing an incredible second half in France to defeat the world champions and pip Ireland to the title.

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Now, just seven weeks after New Zealand were crowned champions of the inaugural Rugby Championship, nine teams from those two tournaments – along with Georgia, Spain and Fiji – have gathered in South Africa to fight it out for glory.

It won’t be until the July 19 final that the 2024 champions are crowned, but this weekend’s six-match round one is set to deliver some priceless entertainment from the iconic DHL Stadium and Athlone. Here are the RugbyPass opening day talking points:

TRC game-changer
One of the major gripes following last year’s Championship – the first since Argentina 2019 due to the pandemic cancellation of three editions – was how generally off the pace the southern hemisphere teams were.  

In 2019, the semi-final divide favoured the south with Australia, South Africa and Argentina qualifying for the last four along with eventual champions France. Last year, this balance was tipped three to one in favour of the Europeans, as only the hosts South Africa got through to battle it out with repeat champions France, Ireland and England.

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To remedy what they felt was a lack of preparation, the southern hemisphere big four held their maiden U20 Rugby Championship on the Australian Gold Coast in early May.

Not only has it left them having had more recent competitive matches than their northern rivals who finished their Six Nations in mid-March, they also went one step further by having the three rounds of matches mirror the World Rugby Championship format of playing games every five days.

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We’ll soon know whether this formula has given the south an edge as Saturday’s England versus Argentina and Wales versus New Zealand clashes are the opening day’s battle of the hemispheres fixtures.

Next Gen law trials
There are going to be moments across the six matches when fans in the stadiums and those watching from around the world either on RugbyPass TV or with a host broadcaster such as South Africa’s SuperSport will be left quizzical about a decision they have just seen a referee make.

The age-grade tournament is the guinea pig for a raft of new law trials, including 20-minute cards, the allowance of wonky throws if the non-throwing team doesn’t contest the jump, a shot clock on the setting up of scrums and lineouts, forcing teams to play the ball after a maul has been stopped one and not twice… and so on (click here for all the law trial explanations).

Joel Jutge, the referees boss at World Rugby, has been on the ground in Cape Town to ensure that his contingent of whistlers are well-versed regarding the changes and it will be intriguing to see how the teams adapt.

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The officials might have their work cut out if the prediction of Junior Boks boss Bafana Nhleko comes to pass.

Speaking on Thursday at his team announcement media briefing at the Hamilton Rugby Club pavilion a stone’s throw from the DHL Stadium, he reckoned a pile of gamesmanship was on the cards when it comes to he new laws, especially at maul and lineout time.

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Classy class of 2024
Last year’s tournament legacy was the fast-track emergence of several stars who quickly made the grade at Test level. The French pair of Polsolo Tuilagi and Nicolas Depoortere were especially easy on the eye, but so too were classy operators like England’s Chandler Cunningham-South and Cameron Winnett of Wales who have also seamlessly made the jump to senior-level international rugby.    

Their acceleration has generated hype about who from the 360-strong class of 2024 could follow through just as quickly.

Fresh from taking part in last weekend’s Top 14 semi-finals, Hugo Reus will be one of the numerous French players to watch out for. But there are also plenty more with burgeoning reputations such as England’s Asher Opoku-Fordjour, Ireland’s Evan O’Connell, Wales’ Ryan Woodman, South Africa’s JP van Heerden, Australia’s Harry McLaughlin-Phillips and New Zealand’s Stanley Solomon. 

RugbyPass caught up with four of these seven names in recent days and it is safe to say the Next Gen is in safe hands if the way they passionately speak about the game is an indication.

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Balmy winter weather
Bad weather was a major talking point during last year’s tournament. The pitch in Paarl was eventually lost to the mud and the puddles, getting stood down after taking a pool stage pounding. All surfaces at this year’s competition, though, are in great nick and set to play their part in helping the 12 teams produce some fast-track, high-paced rugby.

The prized venue, of course, is the iconic DHL Stadium, a ground that wasn’t available in 2023. Its inclusion for round one, semi-final and final matches will give the U20s event a fabulous stage for the young guns to show their worth, but the grounds in Athlone and Stellenbosch should also be ideal.

What will help greatly is the weather. The blue sky, mid-winter temperature in Cape Town on Friday was a balmy 26°C at 2pm on Friday and rain isn’t expected in the region until next Wednesday. Round one match day won’t be as hot as 19°C is the warmest it will get and it will cloud over as the afternoon goes on.

  • Click here to sign up to RugbyPass TV for free live World Rugby U20s Championship matches in countries that don’t have an exclusive local broadcaster deal

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Comments

1 Comment
J
Jon 19 days ago

Crowd was fairly disappointing. A relief that teams can play rugby this time though.

My money, despite NZ running the French well in unfavorable conditions last time, when not many others could, is for the technicality of the professional European times to show in the results

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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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