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Where are they now? The 2008 New Zealand U20 Championship winners

By Liam Heagney
The New Zealand U20s team arrive back at Auckland airport after their 2008 title win (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

This was the year when two worlds collided and morphed into one. Prior to 2008, World Rugby – known as IRB at the time – used to run World Cups at U21s and U19s. However, a decision was taken to amalgamate both tournaments and run them as a single U20s age-grade event.

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It was music to New Zealand ears. They had won the final of the U19s tournament that was staged in Ireland in 2007, and it was only natural that they carried over that success into the following year at U20s level with a 38-3 win in the final in Wales in June 2008.

England were in the opposition corner, but the notions held by Nigel Redman’s team of becoming inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship champions were quickly dismantled. They had come into the tournament as Six Nations Grand Slam champions and had beaten Australia and South Africa on their way to the final in Swansea.

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

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HITS, BUMPS AND HANDOFFS! | The biggest collisions from the U20s World Championships

However, with out-half Alex Goode missing two early penalty kicks, Kade Poki’s 17th-minute try left the crowd of 8,537 eager to see some more Kiwi frills. They got their wish in the second half, Jackson Willison, Andre Taylor and Ryan Crotty scoring – and England’s disappointing effort was compounded by Calum Clark getting red-carded.

Sixteen years later, what has been the legacy of the Baby Blacks’ class of 2008? A quartet of All Blacks, the legendary duo Sam Whitelock and Aaron Smith, as well as Crotty and the infamous Zac Guilford.

New Zealand U20s 2008 World Junior Championship
New Zealand celebrate their 2008 World Rugby U20 Championship win (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, five of the age-grade matchday 22 were capped at Test level by other countries, Paea Fa’anunu and Nasi Manu with Tonga, Grayson Hart and Sean Maitland with Scotland, and Rodney Ah You with Ireland. Here is their story:

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15. Trent Renata
Made his sole Chiefs appearance in Super Rugby in 2010 before nine more appearances with the Highlanders between 2013-2015. Spent two years in Italy with Mogliano before returning to New Zealand to play Mitre Cup with Wellington until 2020.

14. Kade Poki
Was a Super Rugby regular with the 2008 title-winning Crusaders before flying to Wales for the age-grade tournament. Five more Super Rugby campaigns followed, the latter three at the Highlanders, before he tried his luck in Japan at Kubota Spears. Four seasons in France then wound down his career, three at Bayonne before wrapping up at Anglet in Federale 1 in 2018/19.

13. Jackson Willison
Six Super Rugby seasons followed from 2009, four at the Chiefs and two more with the Blues, before Europe beckoned. There were two years at Grenoble in France and four in England – two each at Worcester and Bath. Last heard of at Soyaux-Angouleme in the French Pro D2 in 2020/21. Played twice for Maori All Blacks on their 2013 North American tour.

12. Ryan Crotty
Became a Crusaders legend, playing 11 Super Rugby seasons before switching to Kubota Spears in Japan where he was crowned a League One champion in 2023. Won 48 caps for the All Blacks, debuting in 2013 and finishing in the bronze play-off versus Wales at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. He missed out, though, on selection for the 2015 RWC squad. Spent this year back at the Crusaders under Rob Penney.

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11. Zac Guildford
Had already broken through at the Hurricanes before this age-grade success. Five more Super Rugby campaigns followed, the last four at the Crusaders, before he headed overseas for a single season at both Clermont and the Waratahs. His personal life crashed and burned throughout, and his playing career fizzled out with a 2018/19 Pro D2 spell at Nevers before an unsuccessful post-pandemic dalliance at Wairarapa Bush. Won just 10 All Blacks caps but is a 2011 Rugby World Cup winner having started in the pool win over Canada in Wellington. Also played for NZ 7s and the Maori All Blacks.

10. Daniel Kirkpatrick
Broke through to Super Rugby in 2009, playing three campaigns for the Hurricanes and one for the Blues. Four seasons at Castres in France followed, his first resulting in a Top 14 title final win over Toulon. His European adventure ended with a Pro D2 season at Albi before a return to New Zealand was capped by four Super Rugby bench appearances in 2018 with the Blues.

9. Grayson Hart
Took a while to kick into gear due to his time on the Super Rugby fringes at the Blues and Waratahs. A switch to Scotland changed everything, stints at Edinburgh and Glasgow coinciding with three Scotland Test caps and a run on the World 7s circuit. Finished up at Bedford in the English Championship pre-lockdown.

1. Paea Fa’anunu
Didn’t make it in Super Rugby, playing provincially for Auckland, Northland and Canterbury before a career-transforming move to France where he played for Montpellier, Castres and Dax, winning the Top 14 title in 2018. Won 11 caps for Tonga.

2. Ash Dixon
Another slow burner who knocked about at provincial level before a 2013 Super Rugby emergence at the Hurricanes. Soon moved to the Highlanders for whom he played until 2021. Had a mid-career stint at Saitama and has returned to Japan, spending the past three campaigns at the Green Rockets. Was a frequent Maori All Blacks selection.

3. Ben Afeaki
An unfortunate case of what could have been. North Harbour helped to get him into the Chiefs where he won back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013. Retired in April 2015 at the age of just 27 after failing to get back from a February 2014 concussion that was exacerbated by a comeback bang on the training ground.

4. Chris Smith
The age-grade skipper never really kicked on and after multiple provincial seasons at North Harbour, he quit New Zealand in 2014 for a career at the NFL Players’ Association in Washington. Is now an assistant director in their benefits department.

5. Sam Whitelock
What a career, finishing up last Saturday at Twickenham with the Barbarians after a post-World Cup season playing with his brother Luke at Pau in France. A multiple Super Rugby title winner with the Crusaders, his only break before the world went into lockdown was a few months in Japan at Saitama. Finished up internationally last October as the most-capped All Black of all time having played 153 matches since his 2010 debut. Started in the World Cup final wins in 2011 and 2015, and the 2023 defeat to South Africa.

6. Peter Saili
Played in six Super Rugby campaigns before emigrating to France for Top 14 stints at Bordeaux and Pau. Was last heard of in 2020/21 at Valence in the Pro D2. Made the wider Samoa squad for the 2015 Rugby Cup but missed out and never played Test rugby.

7. Luke Braid
Became a Chiefs Super Rugby player in 2010 but switched to the Blues for five more campaigns before heading to France for three and a half Top 14 seasons at Bordeaux. Quit in early 2019 for personal reasons to return to New Zealand. Another who represented the Maori All Blacks.

8. Nasi Manu
Travelled to Wales with the U20s as a Super Rugby title winner with the Crusaders. The Highlanders became his home, though, spending six Super Rugby seasons there before wanderlust kicked in, taking him to Edinburgh and Benetton. Last heard of in Japan, playing for Hino Red Dolphins in 2022. Won nine caps for Tonga, featuring at the 2019 Rugby World Cup after successfully battling testicular cancer.

Replacements:
Rodney Ah You (for Fa’anunu)
Was snapped by Irish side Connacht in 2010/11, spending six seasons there (and winning the 2016 Pro 12) and two more at Ulster. Capped three times by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in 2014. Three years at Newcastle followed before he swapped England for France post-lockdown, joining Pro D2 Vannes in 2021. Was at Limoges in National 2 in 2022/23, switching to Cognac/Saint Jean d’Angely in the same league for 2023/24.

Quentin MacDonald (for Dixon)
Forged a career on the Super Rugby fringes, featuring for Crusaders, Blues and Chiefs across six seasons but starting in just eight of his 53 appearances. Had a fleeting stint away at Munster in that time but it was across four seasons at Oyonnax in France where he thrived. Returned to New Zealand to play provincially for Tasman and the hooker’s longevity was rewarded with a 2023 Super Rugby comeback at the Crusaders. Also played this year under Penney.

Josh Townsend (for Whitelock)
Short-lived NPC exposure for Otago and Auckland was the height of it for the replacement lock who joined craft beverage company Zeffer in March 2011, going on to become its CEO in 2018.

Hugh Reed (for Saili)
Another who didn’t press on, bowing out after some provincial rugby for Hawkes Bay. Is now a schoolteacher in the Napier area.

Aaron Smith (for Hart)
Shot the lights out with his stellar career after a 2011 breakthrough at the Highlanders via Manawatu. Won a 2015 Super Rugby title and is now enjoying a very different club career in Japan with Toyota Verblitz. Was firmly in the All Blacks’ plans under Ian Foster, with the 2023 World Cup final being his 125th and final cap in a career where he was a 2015 World Cup winner.

Andre Taylor (for Poki)
Another Manawatu product, the Hurricanes became the winger’s Super Rugby club for five seasons before a Japanese adventure featured three years at Hanazono Kintetsu Liners and two with Munakata Sanix Blues. Came back for a 2019 season at Manawatu.

Sean Maitland (for Renata)
Was still going strong with Saracens in England until the last day of the regular 2023/24 season when a knee injury in the warm-up in a collision with Elliot Daly brought forward his planned end-of-season retirement. Was a Super Rugby title winner at the Crusaders before playing in the 2008 age-grade final. Headed to Glasgow in 2012/13, going on to win 53 caps for Scotland and tour Australia with the 2013 British and Irish Lions. Spent one season at London Irish before switching to Saracens in 2016, going on to win multiple titles with Mark McCall’s team.

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Bruiser 24 days ago

If 2024 squad produce half that pedigree Id be happy

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