The World Rugby U20 Championship 2019 kicks off in Argentina on Tuesday, bringing together the brightest prospects from all corners of the globe.
Taking place over three weeks, from 4-22 June, the U20 Championship will be hosted by two of the country’s largest cities, Santa Fe and Rosario, and comes at an exciting time for the sport in the region, with the Nations Cup kicking off simultaneously in Uruguay and the U20 Trophy heading to Brazil a month later.
Adding to the excitement, the Webb Ellis Cup will also visit the tournament as part of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Trophy Tour, an additional motivation for the young stars given that half of the players involved in Japan are expected to have come through the U20 Championship since it began in 2008.
“As a proud Argentinian, I am excited to be welcoming the future stars of international rugby to my country. As someone who knows what it feels like to be in their shoes, I know how important it is to ensure that the tournament puts players first and this one certainly does,” said World Rugby Vice-Chairman Agustín Pichot.
“For many, this will be the start of their journey to Rugby World Cup 2023. For all, I hope that they take time to enjoy the experience, build friendships across teams and continue to develop the skills that will see them become not only great players but great people.”
The action gets underway at 10:30 local time (GMT -4) with fixtures being played across the two venues at the same time. South Africa, the 2012 champions, tackle Scotland at the Racecourse Stadium in Rosario and Australia meet Italy at Club de Rugby Ateneo Inmaculada (CRAI) in Santa Fe.
Then, at 13:00 local time, hosts Argentina take on Wales in Rosario and New Zealand begin their bid for a seventh title against Georgia in Santa Fe.
The concluding double-header kicks off at 15:30 and sees France open their title defence against newly-promoted Fiji in Rosario, while England and Ireland bring the curtain down on the opening round of fixtures in Sante Fe.
POOL A: ARGENTINA V WALES
For the second consecutive tournament Argentina face Wales, Los Pumitas having won the fifth place semi-final 39-15 last year. However, both previous meetings in the pool stages of the competition, in 2011 and 2013, were won by Wales.
In France, only three points separated the sides at half-time with Argentina leading 15-12 but Los Pumitas upped the tempo after the break to score four second-half tries.
Argentina boast three survivors for the rematch in scrum-half Gonzalo Garcia and centres Santiago Chocobares and Juan Pablo Castro, while Wales have a six-strong contingent returning, including hooker and new captain Dewi Lake. Lake, a late replacement 12 months ago, is joined in the starting line-up by the man who led Wales in 2018, flanker Tommy Reffell.
Cai Evans, son of World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Ieuan, returns at fly-half, while Ryan Conbeer, a try scorer in last year’s defeat to Argentina, and centre Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler are also back for more. Thomas-Wheeler gets the nod over Max Llewellyn, another player with a famous father in Wales’ second most-capped second-row Gareth, who has to settle for a place on the bench.
With games against defending champions France and newly-promoted Fiji on the horizon, Lake knows his side have a fight on their hands to make their first semi-final since 2013.
“We’ve got three really tough games to start and we’re not really sure what to expect from any of them. We got a taste of what France can do in the Six Nations (a 32-10 defeat) and we played well for 60 minutes before they ran away with it,” he said.
“We played a very passionate Argentina side in last year’s tournament and we know that with their home crowd behind them, it’s only going to lift them even more.”
POOL A: FRANCE V FIJI
Fiji could not have asked for a stiffer test on their return to the U20 Championship after a five-year absence than a date with defending champions France in the first round.
A lot will rest on the shoulders of fly-half Caleb Muntz if Fiji are to do well among international age-grade rugby’s elite. The New Zealand-born playmaker was a mainstay of the side that won promotion last year as the U20 Trophy champions, as was the starting front-row of props Livai Natave and Joseva Nasaroa and hooker Tevita Ikanivere.
Osea Waqa, an ever-present in Fiji’s third-place finish at the Oceania Rugby U20 Championship last month, is one to watch from full-back.
Jordan Joseph, the Player of the Tournament in 2018, packs down at number eight for France and is the only survivor in the starting line-up from the 33-25 win over England in last year's final. Matthis Lebel (main picture) captains the side from the right wing, while Mathieu Smaili is preferred to prolific point scorer Louis Carbonel at fly-half.
Carbonel, the top point scorer last year, has to settle for a place on the bench with France the only team to elect not to name more than 23 players in their squad.
France beat Fiji 37-5 in 2014, the year they were relegated to the World Rugby U20 Trophy, to maintain their unbeaten tournament record against the Pacific Islanders from four outings.
POOL B: AUSTRALIA V ITALY
Italy’s recent progress at this level, marked by back-to-back eighth-place finishes, will be put to the test by an Australian side on a high following their maiden Oceania U20 title success.
The sides meet for the fifth consecutive tournament with the Junior Wallabies having won all four previous encounters fairly convincingly. Giovanni D'Onofrio scored a hat-trick for the Azzurrini but that still could not prevent them slipping to a 44-15 loss in Narbonne in last year’s tournament.
Fraser McReight, who scored twice that day, will lead the Junior Wallabies into battle after being named at openside in a line-up identical to the one that beat New Zealand 24-0 to create history on the Gold Coast. He is joined by two other members of last year’s U20 Championship team in second-row Michael Wood and outside centre Semisi Tupou, while number eight Patrick Tafa is on the extended bench.
The Azzurrini will have to find another source for their points with D'Onofrio no longer eligible to play in this age bracket. But, in winger Michael Mba, they have one of the deadliest finishers around, the 19-year-old impressed with a couple of tries in the U20 Six Nations earlier this year and starts on the left wing.
While Mba is making his tournament debut, seven players in Italy’s match-day squad have U20 Championship experience, including openside and captain Davide Ruggeri and the midfield combination of Damiano Mazza and Matteo Moscardi. Prop Matteo Nocera and scrum-half Alessandro Fusco also make the starting line-up, while hooker Niccolo Taddia and number eight Antoine Koffi are named in the wider bench.
“We’ve named a strong side ahead of our first match of the Championship, with the boys looking forward to their first hit-out over here,” said Australia head coach Jason Gilmore.
“Like all the other teams in our pool, the Italians are fresh off their own Six Nations campaign, but we have prepared for this encounter and are looking forward to the challenge that they will bring.”
Following their @SixNationsRugby Grand Slam earlier this year, how are @IrishRugby preparing for the #WorldRugbyU20s?— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 3, 2019
Watch them take on @EnglandRugby in their opening game tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/whILJlWqzx
POOL B: ENGLAND V IRELAND
A rerun of the 2016 final sees U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners Ireland take on an England side hoping to go one better than the previous two tournaments.
Fraser Dingwall will captain three-time winners England from outside-centre with the starting XV containing six players who appeared in last year's U20 Championship final defeat to France.
They include prop Joe Heyes, who is joined in the front row by Olly Adkins and hooker Nic Dolly. Joel Kpoku is partnered in the second-row by Alex Coles, while test-capped Ted Hill, Aaron Hinkley and number eight Tom Willis form an experienced back-row at U20 level.
“The key element is that we are playing the side that won the U20 Six Nations, so we know it is going to be a big challenge and we have got to be right at the top of our game,” said England head coach Steve Bates. “We have to be accurate, we have to be patient and understand that if we don’t play to the best of our ability then this will be a very tough game and even if we do, we realise it will still be tight.”
England’s only defeat to Ireland’s in six previous encounters at the U20 Championship came in the fifth-place semi-final in 2012. Ireland kicked off their Grand Slam-winning campaign with a 35-27 win against England, though, and a significant number who played their part in that historic achievement will feature in Tuesday's opener, with the obvious exception of top point scorer Harry Byrne, who has been ruled out through injury. Jake Flannery, in what is his first U20 Championship, is tasked with filling his boots at fly-half.
Three players – number eight Azur Allinson, centre Stewart Moore and full-back Iwan Hughes – will make their Ireland U20 debuts and Charlie Ryan captains the side from the second-row.
“We arrived into Santa Fe on Thursday and the players have settled in really well. They’ve focused on their recovery after the travel and are now looking forward to taking the field and getting things underway,” said coach Noel McNamara. “We know from the Six Nations that England are a good side, and they have a lot of tradition in this tournament, but the primary focus is ourselves and what we control on the day.”
POOL C: SOUTH AFRICA V SCOTLAND
Ultra-consistent South Africa have medalled at 10 of the 11 U20 Championships played to date, winning the tournament once in 2012. Meanwhile, Scotland are the only Home Nation not to have made it through to the semi-finals with fifth place in 2017 their best finish to date.
Captained from openside flanker by Connor Boyle, Scotland’s team shows four survivors from last year’s U20 Championship campaign. Boyle’s deputy Ross Thompson will look to orchestrate play from fly-half, while in the pack there are starting spots for prop Murphy Walker, second-row Ewan Johnson and blindside flanker Marshall Sykes, who missed the U20 Six Nations campaign through injury. Tom Marshall will make his Scotland debut at number eight.
“We open this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship against a tough and physical Springboks outfit, but we have selected an exciting side that has the ability to threaten any defence,” said Scotland head coach Carl Hogg.
“It’s really important that we get off to a good start in this year’s Championship, so it’s imperative that we play with real tempo in our game, but also make smart decisions on where we play the game.”
Four players who have experienced the U20 Championship before are named in the Junior Springboks starting line-up with a fifth, David Coetzer, on the bench.
Junior Springboks captain Phendulani Buthelezi starts at openside and he is joined in the pack by tight-head prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye, while Rikus Pretorius and Marnus Potgieter form an experienced midfield.
Vaughen Isaacs (full-back), Angelo Davids (wing) and Dian Bleuler (prop) will make their Junior Springbok debuts, with another player, Keagan Glade (replacement prop), also set to earn his first cap if he takes to the field.
Scotland will rewrite history if they get off to a winning start as the Junior Springboks hold a 4-0 advantage in the tournament head-to-head.
POOL C: NEW ZEALAND V GEORGIA
Two of New Zealand’s 45 U20 Championship graduates have gone on to be named World Rugby Men's Player of the Year in Brodie Retallick (2014) and Beauden Barrett (2016-17), so all eyes will be on the current crop of youngsters over the next three weeks to see if they, too, have the potential to reach the very top of the game.
Some have already shown their class before, not least powerhouse winger Leicester Fainga’anuku, who scored twice against Japan in France before injury cut short his tournament. Since then Fainga’anuku, who stands just shy of two metres tall and weighs 108kg, has made his Super Rugby debut for the Crusaders.
Fellow starters, loose-head prop Oliver Norris and number eight Devan Flanders, also appeared in the 2018 tournament.
Georgia, who are playing in their fourth consecutive tournament, are able to call upon test-capped fly-half Tedo Abzhandadze for a third time at this level, the teenager having appeared in both the 2016 and 2017 editions. Captain Abzhandadze is partnered at half-back by Mikheil Alania, another with past tournament experience. In total, six of the Junior Lelos starting XV have graced this stage previously.
For Abzhandadze’s opposite number Rivez Reihana, a distant relative of former All Black Bruce Reihana, the tournament cannot come quickly enough. “You circle this one off on the calendar and you try and get to it with all your goals leading up to this. It's been a goal of mine since my last year at school.”