The 11th edition of the World Rugby U20 Championship came to an end today, as France claimed their first ever title at the tournament, beating England 33-25 in Béziers, thanks in large to a phenomenal effort from their dominant pack.
The crucial relegation-decider between Ireland Japan was an exciting and end-to-end affair, too, with Ireland doing just enough to see off Japan, 39-33, who will now compete in the World Rugby U20s Trophy next year.
We have put together a standout XV of players from this year’s Championship, many of whom could be making an impact at the next level over the coming years.
- Santiago Carreras, Argentina
This incisive full-back graduates from the U20s this year and he could not have done more to put both the Jaguares and Pumas on notice, especially with Santiago Cordero plying his trade in England. He started all five games for Los Pumitas over the last few weeks and was consistently their most potent offensive weapon, whilst also making good defensive reads and snuffing out opposition attacks.
Competition was perhaps not as stiff this season as it has been in recent tournaments, but France’s Clément Laporte certainly deserves a mention for his performances, too.
- Gabriel Ibitoye, England
If we are going to be critical, Ibitoye perhaps didn’t quite hit the heights he did last year, but it was still more than enough to crack this XV. A couple of finishes he had no right to make, devastating on the counter-attack and mesmerising footwork and agility that comes from his low centre of gravity, Ibitoye was once again vital to England’s campaign.
South Africa’s Tyrone Green and Japan’s Halatoa Vailea came closest to usurping Ibitoye.
- Wandisile Simelane, South Africa
The moving of Simelane from outside centre to wing after the Junior Springboks’ win over Ireland coincided with their tournament coming off the rails against France and England. At 13, Simelane had been constantly involved in the first two matches and shone with his ability to break tackles and run lines that defences struggled to pick up. He was moved back to 13 for the final game against New Zealand, but unfortunately it proved too little, too late for South Africa.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 6, 2018
Nods here for Scotland’s Cammy Hutchison and England’s Fraser Dingwall, with the latter’s defensive work standing out.
- Romain Ntamack, France
The first of three tight Anglo-French position battles going into the final and though Ntamack went off injured at half time, he’d done just enough over the course of the tournament to see off the challenge of Tom Hardwick. Ntamack’s future may lay at fly-half, but that didn’t prevent him from excelling at inside centre over the second half of the tournament, dovetailing superbly with Louis Carbonel.
A mention for Georgia’s Lasha Lomidze, too, who certainly caught the eye this season and has two more years of eligibility, should he not be fast-tracked into the Lelos.
- Jordan Olowofela, England
As a Breakthrough Player of the Year nominee and tournament finalist, Olowofela just edges out Italy’s Giovanni D’Onofrio, but there was very little between the pair, who were the standout left wings this season.
Quickly nailed down the spot opposite Ibitoye after a blistering start to the tournament against Argentina and never looked back. Showcased his versatility, too, stepping in at 13, but it was on the wing where he really shone, leaving would-be tacklers grasping at thin air on multiple occasions over the last couple of weeks.
- Marcus Smith, England
The second Anglo-French battle, with Smith edging out Carbonel, despite a fine tournament from the Frenchman, who can add his name to the list of emerging fly-halves ready to put down a marker for the position with Les Bleus.
On the front-foot earlier in the tournament, Smith guided England with aplomb and looked a class apart at this level, having spent most of the season starting for Harlequins and apprenticing with the senior England team. Even in the final, on the back-foot against a dominant French pack, Smith still created moments of opportunity for England and his tactical kicking was on the money, despite a poor English chase.
- Charlie Chapman, Scotland
Chapman follows in the footsteps of Ben Vellacott in being a Gloucester-reared Scotland age-grade scrum-half, but Gregor Townsend will be hoping that’s where the comparisons end and Chapman can be kept out of England’s clutches at the senior level. The livewire nine not only brought a high tempo and precise distribution to his team, he was also accurate with the boot, stepping up as his side’s primary place-kicking option.
A cracking try from Charlie Chapman for @Scotlandteam U20s at the World Rugby U20 Championship
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) May 30, 2018
- Danilo Fischetti, Italy
A mention here for England’s Alex Seville and France’s Jean-Baptiste Gros, both of whom shouldered the extra responsibility of losing the fellow loosehead props in their squads to injury and still helped take their sides to the final.
Fischetti was rock solid for Italy and helped them lay a foundation for the successes of their back line. The only game where Italy looked below par up front was against Australia in the knockout rounds and that was the one game that Fischetti didn’t feature in. He could be a long-term partner for tighthead Marco Riccioni in a new-look Italian front-row after the Rugby World Cup.
- Flynn Thomas, New Zealand
Not quite the vintage of hookers we have seen in recent seasons, but Thomas was still able to show his class in a New Zealand team that flattered to deceive. Being the next man into the jersey just vacated by Asafo Aumua is an unenviable task, but Thomas could well find the transition to the senior level easier than his national compatriot. Though he isn’t the physical specimen that Aumua is, he is ahead of where Aumua was as a technical hooker at this point.
France’s Guillaume Marchand did his stock no harm whatsoever, either.
- Demba Bamba, France
Arguably the most hotly-contested position this season, with England’s Ehren Painter, Argentina’s Lucio Sordoni and Scotland’s Finlay Richardson all valid top dogs in a year that didn’t also offer up Bamba.
If Tadgh Furlong is setting the standard for senior tightheads at the moment due to his contributions at the set-piece, as a carrier and at the breakdown, then Bamba may be the man to challenge him for his throne in the next few years. The big Frenchman wrought havoc throughout the tournament.
- Joel Kpoku, England
Started all five games for England and solidified their set-piece and defensive and offensive work in the tight. Showcased soft hands with good interplay with England’s other forwards and brings physical attributes that can’t be manufactured in the gym.
Mentions for France’s Killian Geraci and South Africa’s Salmaan Moerat are also due.
- Ruan Nortje, South Africa
Nortje lives somewhat in the shadow of his more high-profile partner in the row and current Junior Springbok captain Moerat, but Nortje turned in a fine campaign. He was sorely missed in South Africa’s hammering at the hands of France and was pivotal in the valiant but unsuccessful comeback a round later against England. Just yet another class second-row coming through in Pretoria.
- Tornike Jalagonia, Georgia
Jalagonia switched between six and eight during the tournament and though his best performances arguably came at eight, the competition for a spot was not quite as fierce at six. He was Georgia’s workhorse on defence and a powerful carrier in attack, constantly involved in the game and showcasing an engine which could have him playing for the Lelos in the very near future. He has just signed for Biarritz, so expect to see plenty of him in the Pro D2 next season.
Among the other blindside flankers to stand out, Argentina’s Joaquín de la Vega and Wales’ Tommy Reffell were most prominent.
- Cameron Woki, France
The third and final Anglo-French encounter goes the way of France with Woki imperious in the final, but Ben Curry had an excellent tournament and certainly took it to the wire with the Frenchman. The final was the perfect representation of Woki’s campaign, with the flanker making a significant impact at the breakdown, at the lineout and as a carrier. To outshine a player with the amount of senior experience that Curry has is no mean feat.
Those two were the benchmarks at the position over the last few weeks, but a mention for Australia’s Fraser McReight. There is yet another gifted openside coming through Down Under.
- Jordan Joseph, France
Where do you start with the competition that Joseph has seen off this year? England’s Josh Basham, Ireland’s Caelan Doris, South Africa’s Muller Uys and Wales’ Taine Basham have all been excellent and can count themselves unlucky to have come up against a player of Joseph’s calibre.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 7, 2018
The 17-year-old was the find of the tournament and joins the likes of Zach Mercer, Juarno Augustus and Akira Ioane to have excelled at this tournament as a N8 in recent years. Power, offloading, speed and footwork, Joseph has everything required to be an excellent carrying threat in the back-row and that’s a good foundation for him to have as he works on the other aspects of his game.
Biggest surprise – Georgia
Georgia showed signs last year of not being the competition’s whipping boy, but to come in this season, with plenty of new faces, and turnover Ireland, come within a score of beating South Africa and push finalists France all the way, is some achievement.
The likes of Jalagonia, Aprasidze and Lomidze all shone and the future of Georgian rugby at the senior level looks bright, even if they will struggle to get regular meaningful fixtures, sitting outside of the Tier 1 nations.
Biggest disappointment – New Zealand back-three
This could easily have gone to Ireland who had to survive a scare in the relegation playoff, but the writing was on the wall for Ireland, with four or five of their key players going down with injury before the start of the tournament.
In Caleb Clarke, New Zealand had a wing who lit this competition up last season, Leicester Faingaanuku was the schoolboy starlet ready to explode on to the scene and Vilimoni Koroi was the sevens supremo hoping to follow in the footsteps of Rieko Ioane. It all fell a bit flat for New Zealand, though, and in the crunch fixtures with Australia and France, the duo of Clarke and Koroi were kept quiet.
The trio all have exciting futures, but the fireworks that were expected this year unfortunately did not come to pass.
First to a Test cap – Giovanni D’Onofrio
The smart money here might be on Jalagonia breaking into the Georgian squad or long-time apprentice Smith being given a shot with England in the autumn, but D’Onofrio really turned a lot of heads this summer.
Conor O’Shea is planning long-term with the Azzurri and D’Onofrio, combined with the likes of Matteo Minozzi and Jake Polledri, could be the spearhead of the next generation of Italian rugby players. Italy take on Ireland, Georgia, Australia and New Zealand this autumn, offering four chances for a debut cap away from the pressures of the Six Nations and the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
Biggest stock boost – Jordan Joseph
Impossible to plump for anyone else here, with Joseph bursting onto the scene in spectacular fashion and, remarkably, having two more years of eligibility at this level still to play.
He is the latest in a long line of talented players to emerge from the RC Massy club in southern Paris and has already been snatched up by Racing 92, with many already talking about him as the long-term replacement for Yannick Nyanga in the French capital.
Being physically dominant at this level is one thing and translating that to the senior game is something many players struggle with, so there is plenty of work still to do for Joseph, but the early signs are certainly promising and there is no player being talked about as much right now as Joseph.
Unsung Hero – Fraser Dingwall
It is easy to have your eye turned by the outside arcs, sidesteps, basketball offloads and physics-defying finishes at this level, but what about the defensive reads, textbook tackling technique and decision-making of a player like Dingwall?
The game is looser at U20 level than it is at club or senior international levels, so the defensive lynchpins don’t often stand out. Dingwall could well be a significantly better, or at least more appreciated player at senior level than he is at age-grade. That’s saying something, as he is quite the age-grade player.
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