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Six New Zealand players to watch at the World U20 Championships

By Adam Julian
New Zealand line up for the national anthemduring the match between New Zealand U20 and the Junior Wallabies at NZCIS on May 29, 2023 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The World Rugby Under 20 Championships start in South Africa later this month. New Zealand is historically the most dominant team in the tournament with six wins stretching back to 2008.

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New Zealand sport an overall record of 65-14 in all Under 20s internationals and have beaten 15 countries.

But they haven’t won the World title since 2017 and struggled in a recent series against Australia with honours shared 1-all.

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The backline looks stacked with several Super Rugby players and All Blacks Sevens representation, but the microscope will be put on the tight forwards who were bullied at times by the Junior Wallabies.

Here are six players to keep an eye on for New Zealand.

Gabe Robinson (Prop)

New Zealand really struggled in the scrums against Australia and in recent history set-piece has been an achilles-heel. New Zealand didn’t settle upon a tighthead in the Aussie series, but Robinson might be the best bet. Yet another product of Hamilton Boys’ High School he was rarely bettered in that winning environment predominantly playing tighthead. Robinson is aligned with the Marist club in Hamilton who won their first nine games of 2023.

Hunter Morrison (Lock)

The busy, skillful, no-nonsense lock has by his own admission matured. Initially, at Whanganui Collegiate he left the school and was driving to Palmerston North Boys’ High School over an hour away. A crash into a truck one morning was the trigger for a more serious attitude to school and rugby. In 2021 he was selected for the New Zealand Under 18 Barbarians out of the Te Kawau club. His ambitions of cracking the New Zealand Under 20s for the Oceania Championship in 2022 were ruined by a broken jaw. He recovered from that setback and flourished on the unbeaten New Zealand U19 tour of South Africa and featured prominently in the recent Australian series.

Peter Lakai (Loose forward & Co-Captain) – The No 8 out of St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, in Wellington exploded onto the New Zealand first-class scene in 2022 helping the Lions win the NPC Premiership for the first time since 2000. He made more carries (147) than any player in the competition and was third in the tackle count with 139. Following an embarrassing loss to Northland in round three Lakai scored a hat-trick in a 31-25 victory over Taranaki in the fourth round. Wellington won their next ten games in a row. Lakai has played seven matches (269 minutes) for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby this year. He played the entire 80 minutes against Moana Pasifkia (59-12) and the Blues (19-25).

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Noah Hotham (Halfback & Co-Captain)

Staggeringly, Hotham was unwanted by Otago for the NPC in 2022 so he was snapped up by Tasman and was named Young Player of the Year by the New Zealand Rugby Players Association. The halfback is an incisive runner with a quick pass and sound clearances from the boot. In 2022 he was exceptional for the ‘Baby Blacks’ who cleaned up the Oceania Championships against Fiji (74-5), Argentina (32-9), and Australia (69-12). Hotham scored tries in the Fiji and Aussie wins. Hotham has played seven times for the Crusaders earning 264 minutes and six wins. He is the son of Nigel Hotham who has coached the Hamilton Boys’ High School First XV for two decades. Hamilton has won five National championships in that tenure.

Harry Godfrey (Fullback)

With the ability to cover first five-eighth or fullback, the calculated attacking flair of Godfrey can hurt opposition in multiple ways. On Saturday Godfrey had a hand in all three tries in the 19-18 victory over Australia. In March, Godfrey won the Sir John Graham Memorial Medal as the player of the Super Rugby Under 20 tournament. With multiple injuries in the senior ranks Godfrey has appeared eight times for the Hurricanes this season amassing 194 mostly effective minutes. Godfrey is more likely to play fullback with the Crusaders Taha Kemara an option at first five-eighth beside Noah Hotham.

Macca Springer (Winger)

Returns for his second season with the U20s and will almost certainly start after his outstanding form in the Oceania Championship on the Gold Coast in 2022. Springer scored tries in the 32-9 win over Argentina and the record 69-12 obliteration of Australia. Though Tasman failed to make the semi-finals of the NPC for the first time since 2011, it was no fault of Springer. He scored a team-leading eight tries in nine games including doubles against Canterbury, Manawatu, and Auckland. Springer has featured four times for the Crusaders in 2023 and already scored four tries in his brief Super Rugby career to date.

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