New Zealand hope a domestic Super Rugby-style tournament for the country’s top youth players will pave the way to internationals against Australia and Pacific nations after cross-border competition at junior level was wiped out by COVID-19.
While professional and test rugby have sputtered back to life after the disruptions of 2020, junior competitions remain effectively shelved, clogging up a key pathway for young talent into senior levels.
The World Rugby Under-20 Championship, scheduled for mid-year in Italy, was cancelled last month for a second successive year due to the pandemic.
With junior rugby to remain a domestic affair for the time being, New Zealand will stage a week-long “Super Rugby Aotearoa Under-20” tournament from April 11.
The under-20 sides will compete for the same five provinces in the professional Aotearoa tournament, along with a sixth ‘New Zealand Barbarians’ team.
Adding novelty, all three of the matchdays in Taupo will be broadcast live by New Zealand’s Sky.
The viewership may be limited to New Zealand’s most devout fans but it will be a vital first step for the country’s top youths to get back into the swing after the whitewash of 2020.
“It’s an interesting group this one, because they didn’t play any rugby last year and so everyone in high performance is dealing with young athletes that have bounced out of a really weird year,” Tabai Matson, head coach of New Zealand’s under-20 programme, told Reuters.
“There will be pretty much the best kids in the country on show, so it’s exciting and new.
“There may be some rule variations. So it’s also a great opportunity to have a look at a different way of playing.”
Much like the All Blacks in test rugby, New Zealand have, until recently, been virtually unbeatable at under-20 level.
The ‘Baby Blacks’ have won six of the 12 World Rugby Under-20 Championships but slumped to seventh in the 2019 edition in Argentina, their worst ever finish.
With the All Blacks dumped from the World Cup semi-finals the same year, some New Zealand pundits linked the disappointment in Japan with the flat-lining performance at under-20 level.
Matson dismissed the relationship but conceded rivals had beefed up their junior programmes.
“Is the competition getting stronger? Absolutely it is because it’s better prepared than it was five-10 years ago,” said the former Waikato Chiefs assistant coach.
“I think we’re producing a lot of talent. I can’t compare it to other people’s programmes but what I’ve heard is South Africa, for example, get their under-20s together for six months before they go to a tournament.
“That just can’t happen in New Zealand. Our players are committed to their provincial and Super franchises.
“If your desire is to win the (global) tournament every year then you probably have a different programme.
“Our programme is to create adaptable players that can go further in our game and transfer into Super Rugby successfully.”
Like the professional Super Rugby sides in Australia and New Zealand, Matson hopes the New Zealand government will soon approve a travel “bubble” with Australia.
The removal of quarantine requirements in New Zealand for travellers from Australia would pave the way for international under-20 competition to resume between the countries.
Rugby Australia also hope the under-20 Junior Wallabies can take on New Zealand and Pacific nations in an Oceania tournament at some stage this year to drive momentum forward.
“Any time we’ve got a tournament with Pacific Islanders and Australia in it, we’re always happy to smash our brothers across the Tasman and Pacific,” said Matson.
“We want Oceania to be strong because they’re our cousins, brothers and sisters.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing Peter Rutherford)
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