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U20 Six Nations Report Card: England star as Scotland stumble

By Alex Shaw
Sam Riley showcased his versatile skill set throughout the tournament. (Getty Images)

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Delayed thanks to the global pandemic, the 2021 U20 Six Nations finally took place over the last few weeks, as the six age-grade sides descended on Cardiff Arms Park for a festival of fast, attacking rugby.

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Away from the shadow of the tournament’s senior counterpart, albeit with growing attention focused on South Africa for the British and Irish Lions tour, the U20s put on a show in the Welsh capital and plenty of players boosted their stock as they bid to breakthrough into senior club rugby and beyond next season.

England won their fourth Grand Slam and first since 2017 as they bounced back from, by their standards, a couple of disappointing campaigns at this level. Impressive French and Irish efforts saw them secure second and third respectively, whilst Italy’s fifth-place finish showed some promising signs that belied their lowly finish on the league table. A last-round win for Wales over Scotland lifted them up into fourth and consigned Scotland to the wooden spoon, though it is a tournament that neither side will be overly pleased with.

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We have run the rule over all six sides below and picked out a star performer from the last month, all of whom will hope that they will be showcasing their talents at a higher level over the next year.

England
France, Ireland and Italy all caused this England side plenty of problems but, unlike in some recent years, they were able to think on their feet, adapt and ultimately overcome all of the challenges that were posed to them. Alan Dickens’ side also boasted comfortable and comprehensive victories over Wales and Scotland.

There was no shortage of impressive performers for England, not least so the half-back partnership of Jack van Poortvliet and Fin Smith. Their control of tempo, management of the back line and moments of individual skill consistently kept England chugging along during the tournament. Elsewhere, Ewan Richards and Jack Clement had fine tournaments in a pack that kept its foot on the throat of opposition sides, whilst Dan Lancaster and Arthur Relton caught the eye in the back line.

Star PerformerSam Riley
The mobile hooker was at his brilliant best in the open and flowing games of the U20s and has shown that, at the very least, he can have a role at the senior level as change of pace option from the bench if he is indeed deemed “undersized”. His work rate and ball-carrying, particularly his ability to target space, were exemplary.

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Sam Riley playing for Quins (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

If he continues to hone his throwing, he could fit smoothly into the high-tempo attacking game that Harlequins have been playing. Competition comes from fellow academy hookers Jack Musk and George Head, but this tournament has done nothing but boost Riley’s chances of featuring for his club over the next year.

France
France will look back and rue their second half performance against England in the opening round of the tournament. Had they not relinquished a 19-3 half time lead over the English, ultimately succumbing to a 38-22 defeat, it would likely have been the French lifting the Grand Slam this year.

There are plenty of areas of strength in this French side but perhaps none quite so loaded as the back row, where Matthias Haddad and Maxime Baudonne stole the show on the flanks. Theo Ntamack flashed his explosive ability at N8, whilst Killian Tixeront and Pierre Bochaton showcased some of the trademark physicality of French rugby in their outings. Nelson Epee and Emilien Gailleton stood out at wing and outside centre respectively, too.

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Star PerformerThibault Debaes
Debaes has already begun to make an impact at Pau and the young fly-half has an excellent appreciation for space and/or opportunity in attack. Long gone are the years of French rugby struggling to find any sort of depth at 10 and now the question will be whether or not Debaes can force his way into the mix with the likes of Romain Ntamack, Louis Carbonel and Matthieu Jalibert still just at the beginning of their international careers.

There were one or two moments where Debaes’ game management let him down, but his skill set is one that French fans can begin to get very excited about. The consistency in decision-making will come with experience and playing time, as should his execution under pressure.

Ireland
It was an up and down tournament for Ireland, with missed opportunities against England and France costing them, but they showed themselves to be the clear number three side at the tournament in their other fixtures.

Ulster’s Nathan Doak impressed at scrum-half, whilst Cathal Forde was the clear standout in the back line, displaying a nice array of skills at inside centre. Alex Soroka stepped up in the pack whether that was at lock or blindside, with Harry Sheridan combining well with him in the engine room.

Star PerformerAlex Kendellen
The tougher the opponent and the more potent the challenge, the greater the heights that Kendellen rose to. The Munster back row was physically dominant, explosive, technically refined and showed great leadership skills throughout the tournament.

Munster are not often one to throw a player in too young, but Kendellen is the kind of prospect that will test that customary patience to its limit. Even with CJ Stander’s retirement, Munster do not lack for back row options, particularly young homegrown ones, but if Kendellen is not semi-regularly appearing in the United Rugby Championship next season, it would be very surprising, such is his ability and potential.

Wales
A disappointing tournament all in all for Wales, who were a considerable way off the top three, not to mention being posed a number of problems by a Scotland side that struggled in every other game this championship. Of course, it is players transitioned successfully to senior rugby, not wins and losses, that really matters at this level.

The 10-12 combination of Sam Costelow and Joe Hawkins showed plenty of promising signs, whilst Dan John was effective on the wing when called upon. Bruising N8 Carwyn Tuipulotu offered Wales a consistent source of front-foot ball and hooker Efan Daniels caught the eye in the loose.

Star PerformerChrist Tshiunza
You know you are a pretty handy rugby player when Exeter Chiefs move to sign you whilst you are still at school and the lock/blindside demonstrated just why Rob Baxter has put so much faith in him. The physicality he brought on both sides of the ball was pivotal for Wales and he was arguably the difference between victory and defeat against Scotland in the final round.

Whether at lock or back row, the ceiling is high for Tshiunza. His experiences in men’s rugby over the next couple of years will teach him how to better use his size and frame in the tackle and the carry, and once he works that out, expect him to feature heavily for Exeter, and perhaps Wales, moving forward.

Italy
In addition to thumping Scotland, Italy were within one score of beating France, one score of drawing with Ireland and had a resurgent second half performance against a Grand Slam-winning England side. This tournament could have easily seen Italy finish in the top half of the table, were it not for small but crucial errors here and there.

Outside centre Tommaso Menoncello and wing Simone Gesi could quickly join a young and exciting back line at the senior level for the Azzurri, with Italy just now beginning to capitalise on what have been a strong couple of classes of U20s in recent years. In the pack, Lorenzo Cannone stood out at N8, although at the next level could well be redeployed on the flanks, given the physicality that the likes of Jake Polledri and Giovanni Licata could bring at the base of the scrum.

Star PerformerIon Neculai
Although Italian rugby’s reputation was built upon formidable scrummaging and fierce forward play, it is undeniable that it is something which the Azzurri have struggled with over the past few seasons. Neculai, a strong scrummaging tighthead who has the frame to remain mobile whilst carrying the requisite weight, could be someone that helps change that.

With Marco Riccioni on his way to Saracens and only likely to improve his game with the Gallagher Premiership side, Neculai, with the right pathway, could be pushing him for playing time with Italy in the years to come.

Scotland
A campaign that Scotland will be keen to quickly move on from, a 43-3 humbling at the hands of Italy pretty much sums up where the Scots were in this tournament. They had their moments against Wales in the final round, and put some short patches of good play together against England and France, but there was a disparity in class between them and their opponents this year.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Scotland, though, with hooker Patrick Harrison and N8 Ben Muncaster both enjoying strong individual tournaments. Elliot Gourlay had his moments in the back line, too, as the former fly-half showed his ability in the 15 jersey.

Star PerformerOllie Leatherbarrow
The former Kirkham pupil was exceptional for Scotland over the course of the tournament, bringing an intensity, physicality and rugby nous that was sorely needed. Against the size and power of England and France he looked at home, whilst he was arguably the standout performer on the pitch against Wales in the tournament’s final game.

The versatile back row will be high on the wish-list of both Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh and if his showings at this level are anything to go by, he could be ready to push on to a higher level in the very near future.

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U20 Six Nations Report Card: England star as Scotland stumble

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