New Under 20s competition shows Blues still struggling to hold onto talent while Crusaders amp up recruitment drive
This weekend, the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa Under 20s competition kicks off on Sunday with New Zealand’s five franchises – as well as a Barbarians selection – going head to head to be crowned the top age-grade side in the country.
The Blues, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders have already named their squads for the tournament, with the Chiefs’ set to be confirmed later today. The Barbarians, meanwhile, will select their team from the players who missed the cut for their local franchises, with a smattering of Heartland representatives also expected to be named.
Two full-time Super Rugby players, outside back Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and hooker Soane Vikena, have earned selection for the Blues and will play in the side’s opening game against the Crusaders on Sunday. That first-round match could go some way to predicting who will be crowned champions at the end of the competition.
The Blues have been able to select 13 players who have previously featured for the New Zealand Secondary Schools or Barbarians representative sides while Vikena and midfielders Meihana Grindlay and Corey Evans were all named in last year’s Under 20 national development squad.
The Crusaders boast a similar number of former representatives, as well as current Super Rugby player Chay Fihaki. Fihaki, captain Anton Segner and up-and-coming lock Zach Gallagher also all featured in that Under 20s development camp.
Despite the large number of former schools representatives selected in the Blues squad, selections around the country also highlight the fight that the Auckland-based franchise have on their hands to keep their top talent in the region.
The Blues have been criticised in years gone by for letting promising players slip through their fingers and thriving for other Super Rugby teams.
The likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Jack Goodhue and, more recently, Braydon Ennor and Josh Ioane were all schooled in Auckland but eventually headed elsewhere for Super Rugby and cracked the All Blacks via their new franchises. There’s a considerable number of non-All Blacks who were also reared in the Blues region and likely supported the team through their youths but eventually ventured further afield when it came time to play professionally.
The damage hasn’t been quite as considerable over the past two seasons, with the Blues managing to lure Crusaders prospect Sam Darry north while also bringing All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala and Dillon Hunt back to the region. They’ve also recruited Beauden Barrett from the Hurricanes and will have the services of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck next year – who played age-grade rugby for the Blues but switched to rugby league after finishing his schooling.
Still, with the sheer volume of talented young players being produced in Auckland – which is no surprise, given the quality of the Auckland 1A 1st XV competition – the other four Super Rugby franchises are still doing their best to lure players away from the province.
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14 men who represented schools in the Blues catchment area during their 1st XV years will line up for other franchises during the Under 20s tournament. Half of those players were involved with either the national secondary schools sides or the national Under 20s team during the past two years.
Sacred Heart’s Chay Fihaki has already been capped by the Crusaders while Aidan Morgan, schooled at King’s College, could line up for the Hurricanes later this year.
The Chiefs have been the main benefactors, bringing six players into their midst from the Blues region – although Counties Manukau’s straddling of the two franchises’ borders muddies the picture somewhat.
On a national level, it’s somewhat unsurprising that the Highlanders and Crusaders have brought the most players into their franchises from outside their regions.
The Highlanders simply don’t have the player numbers to compete with their rivals across the country. As such, they’ve recruited 11 players from throughout New Zealand – taken relatively evenly amongst the four other franchises.
Former St Peter’s College head boy and 1st XV captain Naryan Strickland could line up in the No 2 jersey next week while the likes of halfback Noah Hotham (Hamilton Boys) and outside back Jermaine Pepe are also names to keep an eye on.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, have recruited nine players from outside the region – with four coming from the Blues, four from the Chiefs, and one from the Highlanders.
Unlike the Highlanders, schools in the Crusaders region have never struggled to consistently produce top quality players. The likes of Christchurch Boys High, Christ’s College and Nelson College have churned out Super Rugby star after Super Rugby star.
In fact, half of this year’s home-grown Under 20s talent came from just those three schools.
The Crusaders, however, have never settled for just local players and have always gone out of their way to recruit promising talent from around the country. That’s evident even in their Super Rugby squad, with the starting side named for their Sunday afternoon clash with the Hurricanes populated by 10 players who were schooled outside of the Canterbury and Tasman regions, including All Blacks Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Samuel Whitelock, George Bridge, Jack Goodhue and Sevu Reece.
Fihaki is the biggest name in the Under 20s squad from outside the region, but they’ve also got the likes of Germany-born Tasman flanker Anton Segner and lock Zach Gallagher to call upon.
While the Crusaders region are handy at producing players across all positions, they seem to excel at nurturing second-rowers, with the likes of Barrett, Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Mitch Dunshea, Quinten Strange, Luke Romano and Sam Darry all having spent time in Crusaders development camps.
Expect plenty of fireworks when the Crusaders and Blues meet on Sunday afternoon – although there’s plenty of good rugby to look forward to throughout the whole week as New Zealand’s next crop of talented players make their mark.
Super Rugby Aotearoa Under 20 draw:
Sunday 11 April
11.30am Hurricanes v Chiefs
1.30pm Barbarians v Highlanders
3.30pm Crusaders v Blues
Wednesday 14 April
11.30am Barbarians v Blues
1.30pm Hurricanes v Highlanders
3.30pm Crusaders v Chiefs
Saturday 17 April
11am Crusaders v Highlanders
1pm Barbarians v Chiefs
3pm Hurricanes v Blues
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