With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world and wreaking particular havoc with the European rugby season, it is looking less and less likely that the annual showcase of U20 rugby will take place this summer.
RugbyPass understands that the World Rugby U20 Championship, which was scheduled to be hosted in Italy, a country particularly hard hit by COVID-19, is set to be called off, rather than relocated or postponed. Should that happen, a number of teams could end up touring this summer instead of meeting for the annual tournament.
In the potential absence of that tournament, and general absence of professional rugby outside of the southern hemisphere, we have put together our rankings of the top 50 U20 players currently in the world.
For the purposes of this article, any player born on or after 1/1/2000 qualifies, as they would meet the eligibility requirements to play U20 rugby this year.
- Ewan Ashman, Scotland and Sale Sharks
The hooker lit up the U20 Championship last season as his accurate lineout throwing led to maul try after maul try for a Scotland side that were otherwise disappointing. With Rob Webber set to retire, Sale will be pleased with his performances, too.
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- Tiri Shaw, Fiji
This versatile back row was key for Fiji as they avoided relegation from the U20 Championship last season and he is eligible for another year of representation. It was the well-rounded nature of his game that stood out alongside the more specialist Fijian loose forwards.
- Demur Tapladze, Georgia and Lelo Saracens
An exciting centre, Tapladze recently won his first cap for the senior side and brings some much-needed speed and dynamism to the Lelos back line. A move to France just seems a matter of time for the 19-year-old.
- Izaiha Moore-Aiono, England and London Irish
Moore-Aiono has failed to properly pique the interest of the England U20 selectors over the past year and a half, though his physical qualities, aggressive ball-carrying and game mentality all stand out. Whether with England or not, he will be on your radar very soon.
- Chris Minimbi, Fiji and Fijian Latui
Minimbi is the latest in a long line of gifted Fijian locks and he has that same lengthy frame that sets so many of them apart from the crowd. As with many of his age-grade international teammates, if he were eligible for a UK visa, he’d be in the Premiership already.
- Rus Tuima, England and Exeter Chiefs
The potential of Tuima is sky high, although the sizeable No 8 is still figuring out how to use his frame and going through that maturation period of becoming an adult. When that finally all clicks into place, his stock should begin to soar.
- Jan-Hendrik Wessels, South Africa and Clermont
The former Grey College prop is a physical freak of nature and boasts a mobility and power that shouldn’t be possible in the front row. His move to Clermont is only going to accelerate his development as a scrummager, too.
- Hayden Hyde, Ireland and Ulster
Ulster and the IRFU’s capture of Hyde straight out of Cranleigh School was a coup and a move that could be frustrating Harlequins and the RFU for years to come. He has settled well in Belfast and has, unsurprisingly, been impressing for the Ireland U20 side.
- Akito Okui, Japan and Osaka Toin High School
Shota Fukui followed in the footsteps of Kazuki Himeno and Okui could be the next cab off the rank as Japan begin to churn out quality, international-calibre back rowers. The high school student stood out in the U20 Trophy last year and looks ready for bigger challenges this year.
- Chay Fihaki, New Zealand and Canterbury
He’s not there just yet, but the Crusaders will be confident that Fihaki is exactly the sort of player who can help maintain their burgeoning dynasty under Scott Robertson. If any U20 rugby is played this year, look for the playmaking Fihaki to be among the most exciting players on show.
- Emosi Tuqiri, Fiji and Brisbane City
This Fijian prop follows in the footsteps of Taniela Tupou by lighting up Australian schoolboy rugby with his powerhouse carrying and subsequently going viral on the internet. He has also followed Tupou down a pathway that ultimately leads to the Reds in Super Rugby.
- David McCann, Ireland and Ulster
McCann has been one of the standouts for Ireland U20s this year and replaces his fellow Ulsterman Azur Allison in the side, who graduated from the age-grades in 2019. The competition between the two for the provincial No 8 jersey promises to be an extremely appetising one.
- Ryota Tomoike, Japan and Senshu University
Another dynamic, sharp and smart Japanese scrum-half off the production line, Tomoike adds to the growing list of options that the Brave Blossoms have at the position. As stands, there will be plenty of Top League clubs eyeing up the half-back covetously.
- Vano Karkadze, Georgia and Brive
A hooker, Karkadze already has four senior caps to his name and he hasn’t even turned 20 yet. He has made the move to Brive, where he plays alongside fellow international starlets Tedo Abzhandadze and Vasil Lobzhandize, in what is a Georgian revolution in southwest France.
- Ollie Sleightholme, England and Northampton Saints
If you can impress in the same XV that boasts Taqele Naiyravoro, you’re doing something right. That’s exactly what Sleightholme did last season in his debut professional campaign and he looks clinical, hard-working and physically impressive.
- Connor Evans, South Africa and Bishops
Still at school, Evans is a burgeoning talent in the engine room who could have his pick of clubs in the coming years. RugbyPass understand he has committed to the Stormers, though as an English-qualified player, don’t be surprised to see significant Premiership interest in him very soon.
- Cheikh Tiberghien, France and Clermont
Creative and instinctive at full-back, clinical and composed on the wing, Tiberghien is an example of the great strides that the French age-grade pathway has made in recent years. If he can break into the Clermont side, his path to Les Bleus could rapidly accelerate.
- Tamaiti Williams, New Zealand and Canterbury
The Canterbury production line for the Crusaders is in fine working order and mobile and athletic loosehead Williams is a prime candidate to make that leap in the coming seasons. Well-suited to the higher tempo game the Kiwi franchises play, Williams should thrive in Super Rugby.
- Josh Hodge, England and Newcastle Falcons
This goal-kicking full-back and wing recently made the senior England squad as an apprentice and looks set to be rewarded with an offseason move to Exeter. He has a good skill set on him and though he lacks prototypical size, he makes up for that with his speed and evasion.
- Michael Mba, Italy and Fiamme Oro
Were it not for Mba’s play on the wing last season, Italy could have found themselves embroiled in a relegation battle with Scotland to avoid the U20 Trophy. He boasts speed and finishing instincts that Italy’s senior side could desperately use and expect Franco Smith to have an eye on him.
- Alivereti Loaloa, Fiji and Nevers
A mobile and predatory openside, Loaloa was a pest at the breakdown for opposing sides last year and it certainly won him plenty of admirers in France. If he fills out physically and becomes stronger over the ball, there’s no reason why he can’t carry that on at the senior level.
- Thomas Clarkson, Ireland and Leinster
Another promising Leinster tighthead, Clarkson will be hoping to kick on and join Jack Aungier in putting pressure on Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong. He looks to have made a significant leap from last season and has been one of the standout front rowers in the U20 Six Nations.
- Jac Morgan, Wales and Scarlets
Wales U20s’ Mr Consistent, Morgan is a physical and abrasive back rower who gets through a mountain of work each time he takes to the pitch. If he can replicate his age-grade ball-carrying in the senior ranks, he could be exactly what the Scarlets and Wales have been crying out for.
- Will Harris, Australia and Waratahs
Somewhat in the shadow of Fraser McReight, Pat Tafa and Harry Wilson in the back row last season, this year is Harris’ opportunity to take ownership of the U20 side. Whilst Australian rugby has wilted to a certain degree, the quality and quantity of loose forwards coming through certainly has not.
- Fletcher Newell, New Zealand and Canterbury
Newell, like Williams, is another formidable prop coming through on the south island and someone who will have their heart set on making an impact with the Crusaders. More of a set-piece specialist than Williams, they are an enviable one-two punch of differing skill sets.
- Florent Vanverberghe, France and Toulon
A physically gifted lock, Vanverberghe is already making an impact with Toulon in the Top 14 and could soon follow Killian Geraci into the international arena. He should become a homegrown foundation piece for the side from the Côte d’Azur.
- Ignacio Mendy, Argentina and Argentina 7s
The quick-footed full-back fills the void left by the likes of Mateo Carreras, Santiago Carreras and Emiliano Boffelli in recent years, as the Argentine back three factory goes into overdrive. The Jaguares would seem to be the next stop, before he begins to push those three for the Pumas.
- Ioane Iashagashvili, Georgia and Bayonne
Big, quick and possessing a cultured handling game, Iashagashvili could, eventually, be the long-term successor to Mamuka Gorgadze as the talismanic figure in the back row of the Lelos. He should be a significant part of Georgia’s spine for years to come.
- Max Ojomoh, England and Bath
Ojomoh has impressed in his first season as a professional and many of England U20s’ best moments this campaign have revolved heavily around his impact at inside centre. His ability to find space and get over the gain-line have set him apart at the age-grade level.
- Raffaele Storti, Portugal and Peñarol
Though he doesn’t come from a traditional rugby powerhouse, Storti is every bit as talented and capable as wings from Tier 1 countries. Whoever secured his signing for Peñarol pulled off a mighty coup and he should be at the top of Premiership, PRO14 and Top 14 shopping lists.
- Mark Nawaqanitawase, Australia and Waratahs
Nawaqanitawase has already made an impact at the Super Rugby level with the Waratahs and doesn’t look out of his depth at all. It would not be surprising to see the 19-year-old cap off this year with an inclusion in the Wallaby touring squad to Europe, apprentice or not.
- Osea Waqa, Fiji and Fijian Latui
Undoubtedly the standout player for Fiji last year, Waqa consolidated that with a call-up to the senior squad for the Flying Fijians match with the Barbarians. A full-back with an eye for a gap and the footwork and speed to exploit it, Waqa tormented opposition sides’ kicking games in 2019.
- Tupou Vaai, New Zealand and Chiefs
Vaai made the Chiefs’ wider training group in the build-up to the Super Rugby season, a reward for his efforts last year with the New Zealand U20s and the Taranaki Bulls. The lock will hope Warren Gatland can have the same effect on his career that the Kiwi had on Alun Wyn Jones’ in Wales.
- Celimpilo Gumede, South Africa and Sharks
A vastly talented ball-carrier, Gumede will be hoping that a strong year with the U20s propels him alongside teammates Phendulani Buthelezi and Dylan Richardson in the Sharks senior side. The South Africa U20 back row is his to dominate this year.
- Taine Plumtree, New Zealand and Wellington
Another lock with a comprehensive skill set, Plumtree could eventually be an excellent foil for Isaia Walker-Leawere in the Hurricanes’ engine room. The Welsh-born and South African-raised second row won’t lack for suitors, either.
- Thomas Ahern, Ireland and Munster
If the era of Devin Toner is over for Ireland, an equally lofty successor could have been found in the form of Waterford-native Ahern. The lock stands at 6’9” but doesn’t appear lanky, possessing a solid frame and he carries the weight well, remaining mobile and effective in the loose.
- Freddie Steward, England and Leicester Tigers
A prototype full-back for the modern game, Steward has the height, size and agility to cover the back field and dominate in the aerial game, whilst also owning a considerable boot of his own. He has already begun to earn playing time with Tigers and the future is bright for the youngster.
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- Reesjan Pasitoa, Australia and Brumbies
Touted as the next big thing in Australian rugby, Pasitoa is in the rare position of having been given a professional contract straight out of school, something which was done to ward off interest from the AFL and NRL. As Australian packs go, the Brumbies is a good one for a young 10 to play behind.
- Jamie Dobie, Scotland and Glasgow Warriors
Like Pasitoa, Dobie was given a pro contract straight out of school, a real rarity in those two countries. The budding scrum-half likes to play at tempo and has a fizzing pass on him, although his game management and box-kicking are equally impressive for such a young player.
- Emile van Heerden, South Africa and Sharks
The other half of the feared South African second row with JJ van der Mescht last season, van Heerden is yet another promising player coming out of Durban. The Sharks have seemed to take over South African age-grade rugby and the Super Rugby franchise is already reaping the rewards.
- Sam Costelow, Wales and Leicester Tigers
The Welsh U20 recently agreed a deal with the Scarlets and will depart Leicester after just one season as a professional with the club. He could be the man to ultimately succeed Dan Biggar at senior international level, although he has plenty of competition.
- Matthias Haddad, France and La Rochelle
A skilful flanker, Haddad has shone with the French U18 and U20 sides in recent seasons and will soon be adding to what is a plethora of options for Les Bleus in the back row. There are few clubs better suited to his style of rugby than La Rochelle, either.
- Ioan Lloyd, Wales and Bristol Bears
Here is the competition for Costelow, with Lloyd having lit up most of the competitions he has played in this season. Where Costelow covers 10 and 12, Lloyd covers 10 and 15, and there is little doubt that both will be involved at the senior level in the future.
- Rivez Reihana, New Zealand and Waikato
There is an x-factor ability around Reihana that just sees him edge ahead of the likes of Pasitoa, Costelow and Lloyd here, although in reality, all are very promising prospects. If Gatland is looking for the man to finally take the Chiefs out from under Aaron Cruden’s shadow, Reihana could be it.
- Jaden Hendrikse, South Africa and Sharks
Hendrikse had to dovetail with club teammate Sanele Nohamba for South Africa U20s last season, but this year he will be one of the go-to players and leaders in the group. He’s not quite as dynamic with the ball in hand as Nohamba, but his all-round skill set is as good as any nine in U20 rugby.
- Angus Bell, Australia and Waratahs
Australia is currently enjoying an age of solid scrummaging and enviable front options, something which loosehead Bell should soon be adding to. He was the standout loosehead in age-grade rugby last year and another year of experience will only add to his ability in 2020.
- Jordan Joseph, France and Racing 92
Joseph’s star may have diminished a little lately since he burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old, but those kind of transitional challenges occur for every promising youngster. He still boasts physical gifts that most players would kill for and his game, beyond the flashy, is rounding out.
- Bautista Pedemonte, Argentina and Jaguares
The Argentinean No 8 doesn’t catch the eye in quite the same way as Joseph does, though he is the better all-round rugby player at this point in time. Pedemonte could swiftly find himself alongside Marcos Kremer in the back row at the Jaguares, and with the Pumas not long after.
- Alfie Barbeary, England and Wasps
As with a number of the players in this top 50, Barbeary is a bit of a physical freak, possessing the physicality to play hooker at the senior level, as well as the speed and ball-handling to be an option in the midfield. If he can rein in his fiery nature on the pitch, the sky is the limit for front rower.
- Jordan Petaia, Australia and Reds
There are others in this list who may one day surpass Petaia, but as of right now, there are no equals to him in U20 rugby. He went to the Rugby World Cup last year with Australia and, fitness-permitting, looks nailed on to win plenty of caps over the next decade.
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