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It's time for a rethink for the New Zealand U20s after another low finish

By Adam Julian
New Zealand U20 co-captain Peter Lakai scores against Georgia at the World U20 Championships. (Source/World Rugby)

The New Zealand Under 20s are in the doldrums. At the World Rugby Championship in South Africa, they finished in seventh place with a 50-26 win over Georgia U20 after suffering their heaviest loss in tournament history to France (14-35) and then conceding their highest score against Australia (44) in another loss.

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It’s the second consecutive tournament that New Zealand have contested a lowly consolation fixture. Since winning the first four World Championships between 2008 and 2011, New Zealand has only won twice since 2015 and has missed the semis three times in the last five tournaments.

It should be noted New Zealand played an hour against the Junior Wallabies with 14 men after Tom Allen was red-carded. However, the ‘Baby Blacks’ were no certainties of winning with a full complement after splitting a home series with Australia in June where they were outscored across two Tests.

Against the defending world champions France, the Kiwis looked out of their depth.

Does success at this tournament really matter? The fact that 913 players, including 64 All Blacks, have become internationals from it resoundingly answers that question.

Sam Whitelock, Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Waisake Naholo, and TJ Perenara are just some of the long-term All Blacks to have graduated from the Under 20 World Championship.

Furthermore, it’s no coincidence as Ireland and France’s results have improved at the Under 20 level so too has the fortunes of their senior teams.

Senior World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Sir Steve Hansen observed in the New Zealand Herald recently.

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“Our high-performance department at the moment has to be squirming at our record at under-20 level. Are we getting that business, right? I don’t think so. If we’re not winning under-20 World Cups, we’re not producing world-class players at a younger level to bring into this team [the All Blacks].”

It hasn’t been all doom and gloom in the talent department. Taha Kemara (First-Five), Macca Springer (Wing), Harry Godfrey (Fullback), and Peter Lakai (Flanker) are all individuals who’ve shown they could be very good in the senior ranks. The quartet all debuted in Super Rugby in 2023.

However, New Zealand’s set-piece implosions and failure to measure up physically have been alarming. Without tough and regular age group competition, New Zealand looks comparatively disorganised and undercooked against Northern Hemisphere opposition.

Geographical isolation, worsened by recent Covid lockdowns, is a barrier that disproportionately disadvantages New Zealand. Since when, though, has New Zealand used the excuse of being at the bottom of the world for not being able to achieve?

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New Zealand needs to rethink how it resources and prepares its leading age group talent, otherwise where will the next generation of stars come from?

The biggest issue appears to be the lack of hard, regular rugby. Combinations look cluttered, different styles appear unfamiliar, and impressive fitness scores in the gym don’t equal battle-hardened athletes.

Why don’t the New Zealand Under 20s take a leaf out of the Black Ferns book and play internal matches against men? Invitational teams, provincial unions, club sides, and a proper season of matches, following the Super Rugby Under 20s, could surely improve outcomes.

All Blacks legends Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Ali Williams, Ben Smith, and Kevin Mealamu all helped the Black Ferns in their positions. Daniel Carter taught the kickers and Sir Graham Henry cast his eye over trainings and the girls flourished.

Stronger mentoring programs are required with a particular emphasis on forward play, the style of which is often the antithesis of the New Zealand approach. The expertise of Mike Cron, Jason Ryan, and the like should be summoned.

In the NPC last year there were 183 players who debuted for the Union which they represented aged 20 years or younger. Why don’t the New Zealand Under 20s compete in the NPC?

The NPC is largely a development competition now with 2022 finalists Wellington and Canterbury having a combined 38 players in their squads who debuted at 20 or younger. Wellington won the competition with 13 of their 33 players born in 2000 or after.

Junior sides competing in senior competitions isn’t without precedent. The Wellington Phoenix Reserves for example compete in the Central and National football leagues.

Running the New Zealand Under 20s like an NPC team would create better continuity and opportunity for those competing at the World Cup and help really good prospects assimilate more successfully into a senior professional environment.

The team could be coached full-time and include an overarching mentoring role. Present coach Clark Laidlaw was previously tied up with the All Blacks Sevens for the best part of a decade. Is he as immersed as he could be in our best young XV’s prospects?

The team should take their home games to small unions and rural venues to provide isolated and disconnected grassroots fans a chance to watch quality rugby.
Unfortunately, the tumbling numbers and financial struggles of rugby clubs are complex issues not easily resolved. Weaker clubs mean fewer players and fewer pathways.

Club rugby might not be an adequate preparation ground for the rigorous of the Under 20 World Championship, but it’s better than younger players not playing at all.

The present model seems to involve the best youngsters playing a smattering of club fixtures before being wrapped in cotton wool for several weeks, playing the odd game among themselves, ticking some Academy boxes, and then getting dispatched overseas to get their butts kicked.

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