After last year’s under-20 World Championships were cancelled due to the pandemic, the Southern Hemispheres’ best prospects have not had the chance to show their talents for some time.
Whilst their Northern Hemisphere counterparts were able to play the Six Nations under-20 tournament in 2020 before the pandemic hit, the Southern nations haven’t played since 2019.
The inaugural Super Rugby under-20 tournament for New Zealand’s five franchises has offered up the chance to see some of the best emerging talent in New Zealand this week as they look to resume the pathway for the New Zealand under-20s.
One of the standout prospects this week has been Hurricanes’ midfielder Riley Higgins, a school leaver in 2020 from St Pats Silverstream in Wellington who still has another year of under-20s eligibility left.
Higgins earned selection in the ‘paper’ New Zealand Schoolboys side last year but was part of a group that was unable to pull on the black jumper due to the cancellation of the rep games.
This week he has formed a damaging combination with another New Zealand Schoolboys rep, first five eighth Aidan Morgan who represented the schools side in 2019 out of Kings College in Auckland before signing with the Wellington-based franchise.
Against the Chiefs on Day 1, Higgins was the shining light in a losing Hurricanes side, having a handful of starring moments to bring his side within touching distance.
With his side down 19-5, the second five fended off his opposite to explode through the Chiefs line only to be denied the try over concerns of a knock-on in the scoring process. The ball appeared to be placed just short of the line before bouncing out his hand.
Higgins protest with the touch judge fell on deaf ears as the call was upheld.
Looking to make amends for the missed-try, Higgins tried to come up with a big play going for an intercept on a long Chiefs’ pass, only to spill the ball with outstretched fingertips.
The all-or-nothing attempt led to a Chiefs’ penalty but the centre avoided being carded as it was a genuine attempt. The commentators made note of Higgins’ early misfortune, claiming that from here on out he would have a ‘flawless’ day after three misfortunes, ‘an errant pass, the unfortunate try coming up short and now that intercept’.
“He’s read it nicely but he was offside initially,” the commentator lamented as the Chiefs goal kicker extended the lead to 22-12.
It would be the second half where Higgins would make amends, getting the reward for kick pressure to notch the Hurricanes first try after the break.
Rushing out of the line, he forced the Chiefs to push the ball to the winger and a rushed kick in field gave Hurricanes’ fullback Harry Godfrey an opportunity to slice through on the kick return.
Godfrey’s scything run cut the Chiefs open before he linked up with Higgins on the final pass to stroll over and score the try.
“He won’t make a mistake with this one Riley, surely,” the commentators exhalted.
The try offered the Hurricanes much needed relief but the Chiefs were able to score next, re-establishing their 13-point lead at 32-19.
As the Hurricanes chased the growing deficit, it was Higgins sparking a nice break running a great support line off centre partner Jordan Thompson-Dunn. Finding support with an offload, the Hurricanes won a penalty two phases later.
Thinking quickly, Higgins took a quick tap and powered over for his second try of the half.
Within striking distance at 32-26, the Hurricanes’ 10 and 12 linked up nicely on a midfield scrum as Aidan Morgan laid on a beautiful short pass to a steaming Higgins into the gap.
The towering midfielder looked to link up with his outside support but the pass failed to find an accurate target.
The Chiefs ended up running away with the game to win 40-26 but two tries from Higgins in a promising performance showed what a damaging force he could be.
Higgins backed up his Day 1 performance with more key plays on Day 2 against the Highlanders. After a penalty each and the scores locked 3-all, the second five picked up a loose pass and switched play before making a key offload which resulted in a try assist.
A second try assist from Higgins on a beautiful set-piece play extending the Hurricanes lead to 17-3, and it was Morgan and Higgins combining again from a scrum to cut open the defence.
Taking on the line, a round-the-corner offload from Morgan to Higgins put the midfielder screaming through the defensive line. He summed up his options before delivering a perfect pass out wide to his winger to score in the corner.
“Morgan running to the line, just watch Riley Higgins, he knows exactly where that ball will pop up. And this is something they didn’t nail in that first game,” explained the commentator.
Much like his first try against the Chiefs, Higgins got involved on the scoresheet once again combining with elusive fullback Godfrey.
Getting the dream bounce, Godfrey scampered away down the touchine before finding Higgins back on the inside who still had work to do to outrun the final two Highlanders defenders.
“No one deserves a try more than Riley Higgins!” the commentator screamed.
The try all but sealed the Hurricanes first win of the tournament extending the lead to 36-17 before a spirited Highlanders comeback closed the gap to 36-31.
The Hurricanes finish their tournament with a final clash against the Blues on Saturday, while the Crusaders play the Highlanders and the undefeated Chiefs play the Barbarians.
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