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'It’s not so much what they’re doing, it’s what we do': New Zealand u20s looking to end title drought

By Adam Julian
New Zeland U20 performs the haka prior the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023, 5th Place semi final match between New Zealand and Australia at Athlone Sports Stadium on July 9, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

New Zealand Under 20 are the most successful nation in the World Rugby U20 Championship winning the title six times since its inception in 2008.

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However, since 2017, New Zealand’s trophy cabinet has been bare and last year’s seventh place reinforced the balance of power has shifted to the Northern Hemisphere.

France have won the last three tournaments with beastly packs stifling a typically fast and expansive New Zealand approach.

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Former Waikato, Chiefs, and All Blacks loose forward Jono Gibbes is New Zealand coach for the first time.

Gibbes has extensive experience coaching in France with Clermont Auvergne (2014-17, 2021-23) and La Rochelle (2018-21). Clermont Auvergne won the Top 14 in 2017 and in the 2021-22 season La Rochelle won the European Cup. How does New Zealand regain age group supremacy?

“It’s not so much what they’re doing, it’s what we do. Amplifying our areas of strength and learning lessons from past campaigns and putting them into action will be essential,” Gibbes told RugbyPass.

“It’s hard to compare New Zealand to France because of the different calendars and, international and amateur structures.

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“Where France have made a significant shift is in the amount of work they put into their Under 18 group.  The Under 20’s in France is a two-year process where players are identified at 18 and kept together longer.

“The TRC is great solution around a lack of game time. You want more opportunities for these players to get matched up against quality international opponents. More games are better for long term careers and good preparation for the tournament.

“Fast and expansive rugby is our hallmark, but a challenge is mixing up our style, adjusting to different defensive pictures and territorial challenges.  There was some good rugby in Super Rugby Under 20. The teams were well coached and built a good spirt, but there was no Wales or South Africa so being able to adjust tactics when required will be key.”

In France there is no national secondary schools team. New Zealand plays Australia annually in schoolboy Tests but has little else exists in the high performance space at Under 18 level. Is it time to reformat the New Zealand Schools program?

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“That’s a great question. It’s not for me to answer. We have the talent; we have a good history of rugby in our schools and clubs. It’s about working with the calendar and structures we have, to develop the considerable talent we have.

Another difference between New Zealand and the Northern Hemisphere is that some clubs academies are “fully integrated” with the senior team. That means the Academy players train with the seniors and a ready to step up for matches at any time.

This is true at Irish powerhouse Leinster where Gibbes was forwards coach between 2008 and 2014. In that period Leinster won 205 of 294 matches under head coaches Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt, and Matt O’Connor. That includes three United Rugby Champions and European Cups.

Gibbes identified World Rugby Player of the Year (2022) Josh van der Flier (62 Tests, 48 wins) and loosehead prop Jack McGrath (56 Tests, 38 wins) as two of the best Leinster Academy youngsters he worked with.

The TRC on the Sunshine Coast (May 2-12) will provide the first opportunity to test the talent ahead of the World Championships in Cape Town in July. Three fixtures against South Africa, Argentina, and Australia, replace the Oceania Championship which typically featured weaker Pacific Island countries.

New Zealand’s 31-man squad for TRC features three players who have played in the NPC, 18 players who are on National Development contracts, six returnees from last year’s New Zealand Under 20 Rugby World Cup squad, and 21 players who have been a part of the New Zealand Secondary Schools programme. Players from across ten provincial unions are represented. What was the biggest selection challenge?

“The make-up of the squad; the number of backs, the number of forwards, how many locks we take, how many halfbacks,” Gibbes responded.

“There were good options and different styles of players. The selectors have done a great job identifying the talent. Getting the squad makeup and combinations right is the next challenge.”

In December 2023 Gibbes was appointed Resource Coach for the Chiefs which means he heads the Chiefs Development XV and works in the Development Pathways programme. His other interaction with squad members was in November 2023 at a New Zealand Under 19 camp. Gibbes didn’t provide any clues on who’d be captain but said that will “work itself out when we put the boys in different situations and see how they react.”

The final squad of 30 for the U20 World Rugby Championship in South Africa will be announced following the Rugby Championship Under 20 tournament.

New Zealand Under 20 Squad:

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William Martin* (Chiefs, Waikato)
Sika Pole (Blues, Auckland)
Joshua Smith (Hurricanes, Hawke’s Bay)
Kurene Luamanuvae (Blues, Auckland)
Konradd Newland (Hurricanes, Hawke’s Bay)

Hookers

Vernon Bason* (Hurricanes, Manawatu) – NPC
Manumaua Letiu (Crusaders, Canterbury)
A-One Lolofie (Highlanders, Otago)

Locks

Tom Allen* (Hurricanes, Hawke’s Bay) – NPC
Liam Jack (Crusaders, Canterbury)
Cameron Christie (Blues, North Harbour)

Loose Forwards

Jeremiah Avei-Collins (Hurricanes, Wellington)
Mosese Bason (Hurricanes, Manawatu)
Jonathan Lee (Crusaders, Canterbury)
Matt Lowe (Crusaders, Tasman)
Andrew Smith (Chiefs, Waikato)
Tristyn Cook (Blues, North Harbour)
Malachi Wrampling-Alec* (Chiefs, Waikato) – NPC

Halfbacks

Ben O’Donovan (Crusaders, Canterbury)
Dylan Pledger (Highlanders, Otago)

First-Fives

Cooper Grant (Crusaders, Tasman)
Rico Simpson (Blues, Auckland)

Midfielders

Toby Bell (Crusaders, Canterbury)
Xavi Taele (Blues, Auckland)
Josh Whaanga (Highlanders, Otago)

Outside Backs

Sam Coles (Hurricanes, Manawat?)
Stanley Solomon (Hurricanes, Wellington)
Isaac Hutchinson* (Crusaders, Canterbury)
King Maxwell (Blues, Auckland)
Giancarlo Tuivailala* (Chiefs, Waikato)
Frank Vaenuku (Chiefs, Bay of Plenty)

* denotes New Zealand U20 in 2023. Solomon can cover ten and most of the loose forwards are lineout options.

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