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Nine U20 Trophy standouts that should have Tier 1 clubs salivating

By Alex Shaw
Halatoa Vailea was a shining light for Japan last year in the U20 Championship, too. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

After Fiji graduated from the tournament last year in Romania and re-established themselves in the top tier competition in 2019, the World Rugby U20 Trophy moved on to Brazil this month.


The South American side were joined by Uruguay, Hong Kong, Canada and Portugal from last year’s competition, whilst Japan joined the party as the side relegated from the U20 Championship and Kenya and Tonga were the new teams from their regional qualifiers.

An annual tournament, the Trophy is a coach’s dream for scouting out raw and talented players that are the pick of the crop among Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations, with this year proving to be no different.

We take a look at some of the more impressive performers over the opening three rounds of play, before the teams go head-to-head in the finals on Sunday.

Shota Fukui, Japan

Probably the standout player at the tournament, Fukui is a cut above at this level. The Panasonic Wild Knight eschewed the traditional pathway in Japan of going to university before beginning his professional career and his impressive physicality and technical skill has benefitted from being pushed further and harder at a younger age.


Japan have an array of back row options for the upcoming Rugby World Cup, but don’t be surprised to see Fukui drafted in immediately after the tournament as they build in the next cycle. The dynamic flanker could be a future senior Japan captain and is already playing and leading like a person far more experienced than his youthful age would suggest.

Halatoa Vailea, Japan

Vailea is taking the route that former Japan U20 wing Ataata Moeakiola did, by being utilised in the back row following an impressive debut U20 season in the back three. Whilst that move didn’t take for Moeakiola, who is now prospering once again on the wing, Vailea has looked more comfortable packing down alongside Fukui.

His work closer to the ruck in defence was much better than you’d expect of a converted wing, but he was still a threat further out, marauding down the flanks like a young Tom Croft. It would be a surprise if he is able to live with the physicality and attritional nature of the position at the senior level, however, and he’s more likely a very promising wing moving forward, which is where he was redeployed for the final pool match against Kenya.


Paul Altier, Hong Kong

The Hong Kong fly-half featured in last year’s version of this article and has only reaffirmed his ability in the 12 months since. He’s a refined playmaker who can see and exploit space on the pitch and when he was shifted to full-back for the match against Canada, he displayed impressive counter-attacking and defensive reads.

Hong Kong have been physically outgunned at the tournament which hasn’t put Altier in the best position to succeed, despite some strong play from former Newcastle Falcons U18 Will Panday and London Irish U18 Joe Knight. The good news for Hong Kong is that Knight and Panday should be back next year, but Altier, who already has a senior cap, will be moving full-time into the senior set-up in 2020.

Will Perceillier, Canada

An aggressive scrum-half around the fringes, Percillier ran rampant in Canada’s 78-26 win over Hong Kong, crossing for four tries and setting up plenty of others with his turn of pace and distribution. Admittedly, the Hong Kong defence showed Percillier plenty of gaps, but the scrum-half’s execution once the space opened up, whether as a finisher himself or as a facilitator for others, was ruthless.

He signed a three-year deal with Stade Français earlier this year and will be competing with the likes of Arthur Coville and James Hall moving forward. If his game management and box-kicking, which wasn’t on show too often in Brazil, matches up with his carrying and passing games, then Heyneke Meyer has a gem in Percillier.

Apitoni Toia, Tonga

This loosehead has lit up the tournament with his dynamic ball-carrying. One of, if not Tonga’s most effective forward with the ball in hand, Toia’s power, speed and offloading made him a nightmare for opposition teams to try and contain.

Tonga’s scrum was solid, too, albeit without Toia really going after his opposite numbers and turning the screw at the set-piece. If that part of his skill set can be developed, plenty of teams will salivate over Toia’s potential, whose speed and footwork prior to, at and after breaking the gain-line, was exemplary. He’s not quite the all-round player yet that Rhys Carre was at this point, but he may be even more influential and composed in the loose.

Hateni Tafolo, Tonga

It all fell apart for Tonga in their last pool game against Portugal, which included a far quieter display from Tafolo, but the full-back was one of Tonga’s standouts in the wins over Canada and Hong Kong. A well-measured kicking game, an eye for space on the pitch and good link play with his wings in the wider channels, Tafolo had plenty of positive attacking impact in Brazil.

Playing off the back of Malakai Uasi’s powerful and direct carrying at 12, Tafolo was clinical in space. His defensive positioning was also solid and he looks like a promising deputy for Telusa Veainu moving forward, unless Tonga like the balance of his skill set and experiment with what he could bring to the 10 jersey.

Raffaele Storti, Portugal

Composed, quick, ambitious and with a powerful fend, Storti has run rampant on the wing for Portugal during the tournament. The 18-year-old has experience on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and that shows up in his game at this level, where he has the confidence to take on a man or two or three and beat them all individually.

He can step off both feet, he has a dangerous stutter step and the acceleration to leave defenders embarrassed, and if he can’t find a way around a defender, he’ll put out a piston of a fend and generate deceptive power through his footwork and speed. Through the first three games, no one has had an answer for his devastating attacking skill set and he helps give Portugal a puncher’s chance at least to upset heavy favourites Japan in the final.

Baltazar Amaya, Uruguay

Another dangerous wing, Amaya is unlucky to have been left somewhat in the shadows of the stellar performances of Storti for Portugal. That said, Amaya has been dangerous and, in another year, he may well be the pick of wing options at the tournament.

He has good size for the position and impressed with his reading of the game defensively, pouncing and turning defence into attack with opportune interceptions, as well as shutting down the width that teams looked to get against Uruguay. With a number of veteran back three options playing in the MLR, Uruguay are unlikely to look to Amaya until after the Rugby World Cup, but northern hemisphere clubs should keep a close eye on the wing, who definitely looks like he has what it takes to make it at a higher level.

Geofrey Okwach, Kenya

The 19-year-old wing is already a fully-capped international for Kenya, having made his senior bow against Uganda back in June. He was joined in that starting XV by Dominic Coulson, Kenya U20s’ impressive fly-half from this year’s Trophy tournament.

Okwach wins with his speed and acceleration, which left plenty of defenders clawing at thin air over the last couple of weeks. In one particularly impressive move, the wing ran out and around three Japanese defenders off of first phase in Kenya’s encouragingly competitive outing against this Sunday’s finalists. A future in sevens could beckon for Okwach, who clearly has the physical ability to prosper in that form of the game and, barring interest from abroad, may be his best chance of making a global impact.

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