The World Rugby U20 Championship gets underway in Argentina on Tuesday, bringing together the brightest prospects from all across the rugby world.
France are looking to defend their maiden title, whilst England and New Zealand, who account for nine of the other 10 titles, will be keen to return to their recent dominance of the competition. Ireland head into the tournament as the U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners, whilst Australia recently upset New Zealand in the Oceania Rugby U20s, lifting that trophy for first time in its five-year history.
South Africa will be as competitive as ever, hosts Argentina will fancy their chances on home soil and newcomers Fiji, promoted from the U20 Trophy last year, are loaded with dangermen, in what could easily be one of the most compelling tournaments yet.
We have taken a look at the squads and put together a shortlist of exciting talents to keep an eye on over the next few weeks, hopefully avoiding some of the more high profile players that fans will already know well.
Connor Boyle, Scotland
The Scotland captain and openside has a tough task on his hands guiding his side away from the relegation battle in Argentina, which looks as fierce and competitive as it has ever been. Boyle is adept over the ball and with Scotland lacking some of the firepower and set-piece stability of the other northern hemisphere teams earlier this year in the U20 Six Nations, he’ll need to provide his teammates with opportunities to attack in transition moments.
Tom Marshall, who trained with England earlier this year, has been drafted in and will bolster the back row alongside Boyle and Cristen van Niekerk, in a unit that will need to play to their full potential if Scotland are to have a successful tournament. The side head to Argentina in good spirits, though, as a morale-boosting 70-7 victory was recorded over the SRU-backed and future MLR side, Old Glory DC, on Monday.
Jake Flannery, Ireland
Ireland’s hopes of replicating their U20 Six Nations success in Argentina have been dealt three cruel blows in the forms of injuries to Harry Byrne, Scott Penny and David Hawkshaw. Flannery should resume his duties at full-back for the tournament but with Byrne down, Ben Healy will step up as the first-choice fly-half and Flannery could see himself spelling Healy at the position.
If Flannery remains permanently at 15, though, he offers Ireland a blend of game management and counter-attacking at the back, whilst his experience as a fly-half makes him a comfortable ball-handler when he steps up into the back line, potentially also allowing Ireland to split the field and attempt to create mismatches and overlaps. Keep an eye on Dylan Tierney-Martin and Josh Wycherley at the set-piece and Craig Casey’s tempo and distribution at nine, too.
Nick Frost, Australia
No one needs to be told about the talents of Semisi Tupou or Isaac Lucas, with the two backs both featuring in Super Rugby already, whilst speedster Triston Reilly is an intriguing addition and one that watchers of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series will be very aware of. Away from the backs, it’s a strong Australian pack this year, something which is not always true at this level, and lock Frost embodies the physical edge and set-piece ability that this group has.
Having passed on a contract with the Waratahs in 2017 and moved to Christchurch to join the Crusaders, Frost is set to return to Australia this year, having agreed a deal with the Brumbies. That time spent playing for Canterbury U19s and the Crusaders Knights certainly hasn’t hindered his development and his decision to return to Australia is based on his desire to represent the Wallabies, something which could happen sooner rather than later following the Rugby World Cup.
Celimpilo Gumede, South Africa
Arguably the least-touted of South Africa’s impressive back row this year, Gumede’s size, mobility and raw technical ability should have the Sharks and Springboks licking their lips in anticipation. Club and U20 teammate Phendulani Buthelezi has already played in Super Rugby, whilst Francke Horn has been the standout player over the warm-up games, meaning that Gumede has his work cut out just making the starting back row, let alone starring in it.
As a trio, they balance each other wonderfully well and it will be in contention with England’s group as the standout unit of loose forwards in the competition. Gumede’s history playing sevens certainly won’t hurt his ability to bring his carrying game to the fore for South Africa, with Horn likely to be involved closer to the ruck the majority of times and captain Buthelezi set to have his work cut out delivering quick ball at the breakdown. Inside centre Rikus Pretorius is another to watch, with the Western Province man among the most dangerous carriers at the tournament, whilst Jaden Hendrikse will be hard for opposition sides to contain at nine.
Dewi Lake, Wales
Lake assumed the captaincy for Wales after Tommy Reffell went down with injury early in the U20 Six Nations and despite the return to the team of the Leicester Tigers flanker, Lake has not relinquished the role, such was his contribution during the tournament. Aside from a narrow win over England in Colwyn Bay, it wasn’t a stellar showing for Wales, but Lake’s level of play was one thing which the coaches can’t have failed to be pleased by.
A strong set-piece hooker, the 20-year-old delivered in the loose, too, as he was one of his side’s primary ball-carriers and his conditioning allowed him to maintain that intensity and work rate throughout games. He’ll need to replicate that in Argentina and if he can, there could be minutes on offer at the Ospreys next season, who are losing starting hooker Scott Baldwin to Harlequins. Look for wing Ryan Conbeer to put down a marker as well, with the Scarlets prospect’s speed and finishing ability up there with the best at the tournament, whilst Sam Costelow and Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler will impress as playmakers.
Lasha Lomidze, Georgia
This fly-half shone for Georgia as an inside centre last season, coupling the traditional distribution work of a 10 with plenty of incisive lines and power as a ball-carrier. As multi-faceted inside centres go, Lomidze will be among the standout players in Argentina and, thanks to his birthday in January just avoiding the cut-off, he will be eligible to return for a third championship next year, should Georgia avoid relegation.
Georgian packs have always been the focus at every level for the Lelos and that won’t be any different this year, but in Lomidze they have a player capable of orchestrating a threatening back line that can make the most of any advantages their forwards give them. Coupled with 17-year-old fly-half Dachi Papunashvili, who may start the tournament as the bench 10 but who has a very exciting skill set, Georgia are starting to produce the more skilful, all-round athletes that are required in the back line if the seniors have true aspirations of joining the elite Tier 1 teams on a full-time basis.
Matteo Moscardi, Italy
The Italian outside centre and former U18 captain was integral to the young Azzurri during the U20 Six Nations, and he and his teammates were good value for their win over Scotland and deserved more from their tight loss to France. Even the heavier losses to Wales, England and Ireland saw Italy look very competitive for vast swathes of the games and the scorelines flattered their opponents in the end. Lock Thomas Parolo, wing Michael Mba and openside Davide Ruggeri were among the other standouts over the course of those five games.
Moscardi is not going to light up the tournament in Argentina with the speed and power that often sees players stand out at this level, but he is not deficient in either area and his reading of the game is well ahead of where it is for many first-year players, particularly in a position like 13, where he is required to make important decisions on most phases. He is adept across the board, without necessarily excelling in any one particular facet, something which makes him the offensive and defensive glue in this promising Italian side.
Bautista Pedemonte, Argentina
This Argentinean team will not lack for pace in the back three, with both Ignacio Mendy and Mateo Carreras threats to break away and score from anywhere on the pitch, but Pedemonte is the focus of our attentions in the back row. This will be Pedemonte’s second tournament after putting in a number of eye-catching performances last year in France and due to that early call-up, he will still be eligible next season.
He brings plenty of power in the contact, although he is not your typical one-out runner or pick and go merchant, with plenty of pace and footwork to elude tacklers in tight or in space. If Argentina want to unleash the likes of Mendy and Carreras on a defence that is moving backwards and being caught tight by quick ball, then Pedemonte is going to be at the heart of their efforts to get over the gain-line.
Cameron Redpath, England
We’ve tried to avoid the established players and standouts from last year, like Ted Hill and Joel Kpoku, as well as the much talked about Alfie Barbeary, but expect all three to have very impactful tournaments. In Redpath, England have a player who would likely have a senior international cap by now, if it were not for him requiring an ACL reconstruction last summer. Nevertheless, the inside centre has kicked on quickly following that injury and began to cement himself as a member of Sale Sharks’ matchday 23 over the second half of the season.
A comfortable ball-handler, distributor and incisive carrier with an eye for a gap, Redpath will help make up for the losses of Marcus Smith and Ollie Lawrence, the former of whom is playing for England against the Barbarians and the latter whose season was wiped out with an ankle injury during the U20 Six Nations. Redpath’s chemistry and combinations with Manu Vunipola and Fraser Dingwall will go a long way to deciding how successful England are going to be out in Argentina.
Quinn Tupaea, New Zealand
It is not an attempt to dismiss the New Zealand pack, that we are focusing solely on the back line of six-times world champions at this level, it’s simply that it could be one of the best back lines assembled in U20 rugby history. From Leicester Fainga’anuku and Etene Nanai-Seturo on the wings, both of whom have Super Rugby experience, to the playmaking talents of Rivez Reihana and Billy Proctor, the New Zealand back line is loaded this year.
We’ve opted for Tupaea, who is likely to start in the midfield alongside Proctor, following a dazzling Mitre 10 Cup season with Waikato in 2018. He lit up the New Zealand domestic competition, scoring seven tries through his potent mix of inside stepping and outside breaks from the 13 position. Having two threats as dangerous as Fainga’nuku and Nanai-Seturo outside him, Tupaea could carve up the championship over the next few weeks and make the struggling Chiefs doubly annoyed they didn’t pick him up on a Super Rugby contract this year.
Florent Vanverberghe, France
No one needs to be told again about the talents of Jordan Joseph at N8 for France, nor the ability of Toulon pair Louis Carbonel and Jean-Baptiste Gros. All three have been involved in Top 14 or European rugby this season and Vanverberghe, who is also a member of Toulon, comes into the tournament a little more under the radar than his three illustrious teammates.
At 18 years of age, it’s not surprising that Vanverberghe hasn’t seen the amount of senior action that Carbonel or Gros have, despite Toulon’s indifferent form this season, but he did showcase his physicality and significant potential against Newcastle Falcons in the Heineken Champions Cup. Whilst physical, he is also mobile and well-conditioned, more than capable of playing a faster-paced game for 80 minutes, something which, if he retains it, could help separate him from other, more ballast-focused, French second rows in the years to come.
Ratu Osea Waqaninavatu, Fiji
Picture your idealised counter-attacking Fijian full-back and you’re likely imagining Waqaninavatu. He was one of Fiji’s most productive players during the recent Oceania Rugby U20s and brings the same loping stride and peerless offloading game that is now expected of every Fijian back. What he also gives the recently promoted side is a bit of control at the back.
Waqaninavatu is comfortable stepping in at fly-half if necessary and he’ll bring a kicking game when it’s needed to relieve pressure inside the 22, as well as a safe pair of hands contesting the high balls that teams will inevitably try to challenge Fiji with. Helping Fiji deal with those basics will be hooker Tevita Veicavuyaki Ikanivere, whose lineout throwing and hooking at the scrum is strong, whilst inside centre Ilaisa Droasese will provide much of the cutting edge and thrust in the midfield that sevens star Vilimoni Botitu brought to the team last year.
Watch: The Academy – Part Six
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.