Where are they now: The 2017 New Zealand U20 world champions
Two years on from securing their fifth U20 World Championships crown in eight attempts, New Zealand headed to Georgia to add a sixth crown to their name in 2017.
The Baby Blacks side dominated proceedings, thrashing Scotland, Italy and Ireland in pool play before dispatching France in the semi-finals and then walloping England in the final by a record scoreline of 64-17.
Three years have since passed, so here’s a look at where the world-conquering side currently stand in their young professional careers.
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1. Ezekiel Lindenmuth
The Samoan-born prop ended up as the Baby Blacks’ starting loosehead prop in their final demolition of England, and made his provincial debut for Auckland in their Mitre 10 Cup title-winning campaign a year later.
2. Asafo Aumua
A returnee from the unsuccessful New Zealand squad that failed to qualify for the semi-finals at the 2016 U20 World Championships, Asafo Aumua quashed those demons in emphatic fashion in Georgia the following year.
The rampant hooker scored five tries in the tournament, three of which came in the final against England, with his barnstorming style of play catching the eye of many in New Zealand.
Aumua continued that form for Wellington later in the year, leading to an All Blacks call-up for their end-of-year-tour, where he played non-tests against the Barbarians and French XV before eventually making his Hurricanes debut a few months later.
3. Pouri Rakete-Stones
A member of the 2016 New Zealand U20 side that won the Oceania Championship, Pouri Rakete-Stones returned the next year as part of the World Championship team, and ended up scoring a try in the final.
The Napier Boys’ High School product’s exploits landed him a provincial debut with Hawke’s Bay later in 2017, and it’s at the Magpies where he toiled away for three seasons before being handed his first Super Rugby contract with the Hurricanes this season.
Rakete-Stones made his maiden appearance off the bench in his side’s 27-0 season-opening drubbing to the Stormers in Cape Town two months ago, and has made four outings in total to date.
4. Isaia Walker-Leawere
The 1.97m, 122kg behemoth got what he was looking for as he dotted down for one of his side’s 10 tries in the final, and went on to make his Super Rugby debut for the Hurricanes the following season.
Now in his third campaign with the Wellington franchise, Walker-Leawere looked to have established himself as an outside chance at an All Blacks call-up in the absence of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick before coronavirus brought all rugby to a halt.
5. Sam Slade
One of the few players from this squad to have not cracked on at Super Rugby level, Sam Slade has endured a journeyman-like domestic career since his world-beating feats in 2017.
The former New Zealand Schools representative played for three different provinces across three seasons between 2017 and 2019, turning out for Auckland, Manawatu and, most recently, Counties Manukau.
With no Super Rugby contract in sight, Slade opted to pack up his bags and join fellow Kiwis Rene Ranger, Mason Emerson, Michael Curry and Michael Stewart at the Colorado Raptors ahead of the now-cancelled 2020 Major League Rugby campaign.
6. Luke Jacobson (c)
As the captain of this side, Luke Jacobson was one of many who returned from 2016 to shine on the global stage, and the blindside flanker did so with aplomb.
Jacobson’s rugged defence and impressive work rate didn’t go amiss, as he was handed two tests for the All Blacks last year against Argentina and Tonga, and would have gone to the World Cup in Japan had it not been for a persistent concussion issue.
7. Dalton Papalii
Another member of the failed 2016 side, Dalton Papalii headed into the 2017 campaign as one of the most highly-regarded prospects in the country.
He has since blossomed into a test-level prospect after going on to debut for Auckland, the Blues and the All Blacks all within a year-and-a-half of his try-scoring appearance in the final.
Capable of covering both sides of the scrum, it’s seems inevitable that Papalii will add plenty to his three All Blacks caps over the next decade after having already faced Japan, Italy and South Africa.
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
The fifth member of the starting forward pack to have played for the New Zealand U20 side in England the year beforehand, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u has gone on to forge a steady professional career.
After debuting for Hawke’s Bay in his first year out of school, the Wellington-born No. 8 has made 26 provincial appearances for the Magpies and won a maiden Super Rugby call-up in 2018 as injury cover for the Highlanders.
The presence of the likes of Luke Whitelock and Elliot Dixon made it difficult to secure a breakthrough at that level over the last two seasons, but Mikaele-Tu’u has since made the Highlanders’ No. 8 jersey his own in 2020.
9. Ere Enari
It’s been a tumultuous period since leaving school in 2014 for Ere Enari, who was New Zealand’s starting halfback against England, as two broken legs over a two-year period has hindered his progress in the professional ranks.
After snapping a fibula in 2015, the former New Zealand Schools representative went on to play a starring role for Canterbury in the title-winning campaign of 2016, but suffered the same injury as well as a broken tibia a few months after his U20 success.
While he missed the entire 2018 Super Rugby campaign with the Crusaders, Enari has returned in the following two years to add six more caps to the solitary appearance he made for the reigning back-to-back-to-back champions in 2017.
10. Stephen Perofeta
Not initially included in the original 28-man squad, Stephen Perofeta was rushed to Georgia at short notice as an injury replacement for Tiaan Falcon ahead of the final and slotted straight into the starting lineup.
In the fortnight prior to his late call-up, the Taranaki playmaker had made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues against the Reds in Samoa before guiding the Auckland club to a famous victory over the British and Irish Lions.
Having already played for the national U20 side in 2016 as well as Wanganui and the Heartland XV while still a schoolboy the year before that, Perofeta converted seven of his team’s 10 tries in the final and looms as an exciting prospect for future years.
11. Caleb Clarke
The son of former All Blacks wing Eroni Clarke, Caleb made the New Zealand U20 squad in his first year out of school with Mount Albert Grammar School, who he helped guide to a National 1st XV title the year beforehand.
The then-18-year-old made a significant impact throughout the tournament to score six tries before being handed an Auckland debut later that season.
Clarke went on to feature for the U20 side again in 2018 – the same year he made his Blues and All Blacks Sevens debuts – but the Olympics hopeful couldn’t replicate the same success in France, instead finishing in fourth place.
12. Orbyn Leger
A veteran on the U20 World Championships scene, this was Orbyn Leger’s third campaign on this stage after having represented Samoa in 2015 and then New Zealand the following two years.
It wasn’t until later in 2017 when the five-eighth made his provincial debut with Counties Manukau, which spurred a call-up to the Blues as an injury replacement the next season.
A full-time move to the Chiefs followed in 2019, where he was named at first-five for the season-opener against the Highlanders in a shock selection ahead of All Blacks star Damian McKenzie.
13. Braydon Ennor
A post-high school move from Auckland to Christchurch has paid dividends for Braydon Ennor, who starred for the title-winning New Zealand U20 and Canterbury sides of 2017.
His form for both teams warranted a Super Rugby contract with the Crusaders, and after two championship-winning seasons of compelling displays under the tutelage of Scott Robertson, an All Blacks debut came calling last year.
Although he missed out on a place at the World Cup, Ennor managed an appearance off the bench against Argentina during the Rugby Championship, and looks set for a long career in the black jersey.
14. Tima Fainga’anuku
While he’s been a regular for Tasman since his provincial debut in 2016, Tima Fainga’anuku has undertaken a different career route than most others in this team.
Although his exploits in Georgia didn’t land him a full-time Super Rugby role, the bulky wing did end up making it onto the park once for the Crusaders as an injury replacement in 2018.
With no contract for the 2019 season, though, Fainga’anuku headed to France where he played on a short-term deal with Perpignan in the Top 14, before returning to win a Mitre 10 Cup with Tasman and sign a contract with the Highlanders this season.
15. Will Jordan
Arguably the most exciting prodigy in this starting side, Will Jordan has captivated onlookers with his performances for every team he’s played for since graduating from Christchurch Boys’ High School in 2015.
Nominated for player of the tournament for his five-try effort in Georgia, he went on to play a key role for Tasman over the next two domestic campaigns to earn himself a Crusaders contract in 2019.
Niggling injuries and stern competition for a starting role has limited Jordan’s chances at Super Rugby level, but his deft attacking skill set hasn’t gone unnoticed nationwide, and it should only be a matter of time before the All Blacks come calling.
16. JP Sauni
17. Harry Allen
18. Alex Fidow
19. Sam Caird
20. Tom Christie
21. Kemara Hauiti-Parapara
22. Tamati Tua
23. Josh McKay
Five of the players who started from the bench – Allen (Crusaders), Fidow (Hurricanes), Christie (Crusaders), Tua (Blues) and McKay (Highlanders) – have gone on to play at Super Rugby level.
Of the remaining three, Sauni shifted to Australia in 2018 to sign with the Waratahs, but didn’t play in his two seasons with them, while Kemara Hauiti-Parapara made one appearance for the Hurricanes against the British and Irish Lions three years ago.
Sam Caird, meanwhile, was slated to make a potential Blues debut from off the bench in their most recent clash against the Lions a fortnight ago, but was removed in place of Aaron Carroll.
Outside of the match day squad for the final, there are five players currently signed to Super Rugby franchises in the form of lock Jacob Pierce (Blues), prop Ryan Coxon, first-five Tiaan Falcon (both Chiefs), wing Jona Nareki and midfielder Thomas Umaga-Jensen (both Highlanders).
Of the other two players in the squad, Hawke’s Bay prop Tim Farrell remains on the books of the Hurricanes’ development side, while Auckland flanker Adrian Choat has linked up with Premiership club Bristol Bears as injury cover.
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