While England and Japan were the two nations celebrating victory in the Junior World Championship and Junior World Rugby Trophy respectively in 2014, the Under 20 season had kicked off back in February with the Six Nations.

France got their campaign off to a winning start against England and that set Les Bleuets on the way to a first Six Nations Grand Slam, although only one of their matches – against Italy – was decided by more than seven points.

England finished second with four wins, one more than Ireland managed with Wales fourth after recording wins over Italy and Scotland. Italy’s sole win was a 32-13 success against Scotland, leaving their rivals to pick up the wooden spoon for the fourth time in eight years.

While the six teams then had just over three months to prepare for the Junior World Championship in New Zealand, the race began in Hong Kong in early April to succeed Italy as Junior World Rugby Trophy winners and earn a place in the elite tier for 2015.

Former winners Uruguay and USA were joined in the eight-team competition by Namibia, Georgia, Canada, Tonga, the host nation and three-time runners-up Japan with fans in Hong Kong treated some entertaining and tight matches.

Japan made the worst possible start, losing to 2008 winners Uruguay in their first match but the two bonus points they picked up in the 33-28 defeat proved decisive in securing top spot in their pool and a place in the final.

The other pool was equally tight with only one point separating the top three in Tonga, USA and Georgia come the end of match day three. Tonga finished off with a 28-20 victory over the Junior All Americans and that was enough to pip them to top spot on the head-to-head rule.

Generation 2019 shine

The side had been labelled ‘Generation 2019’ – given they are expected to produce the nucleus of the Japanese side when the country hosts RWC 2019 – did not have to worry as led by half-backs Genki Okoshi and captain Rikiya Matsuda they scored four tries to win 35-10.The final at the Hong Kong Football Club on 19 April therefore came down to first timers Tonga and Japan, who had lost three of the four previous title deciders. The young Japanese were desperate to avoid more heartbreak and earn a return to the top tier for the first time since 2009.

Japan will replace Fiji in the renamed World Rugby Under 20 Championship in Italy in 2015 after the Pacific Islanders failed to win a match in the Junior World Championship in New Zealand, losing the relegation play-off 22-17 to the Azzurrini in June.

Fiji had found life difficult but there was more to smile about for their fellow Pacific Islanders Samoa as they gave both hosts New Zealand and finalists South Africa a real scare in the pool stages before securing a top eight finish.

There were some mouth-watering matches for fans to savour, not least the two encounters between traditional rivals South Africa and New Zealand, the Springboks coming out on top on both occasions with captain Handré Pollard pulling the strings and tormented the opposition defence.

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Defending champions England, like South Africa, had secured their place in the semi-finals before the final round of matches, but they were joined by first-timers Ireland who topped Pool B after recovering from an opening loss to France to beat Wales and Fiji.

Their dream was ended their by a dominant England, who would go on to retain their title after a hard-fought 21-10 victory over 2012 champions South Africa in the final at Eden Park. 

South Africa captain Pollard was named IRB Junior Player of the Year after the final and on his return home he was drafted straight into the Springbok squad, making his Test debut eight days after the JWC 2014 final against Scotland.

Pollard would go on to start five of the six Rugby Championship matches, scoring two tries in South Africa's 27-25 victory of New Zealand at Ellis Park in October and ended the year with 10 caps and 65 Test points to his name.

The 20-year-old wasn't alone in making a quick step up to the Test arena as Australia's captain at JWC 2014, Sean McMahon, made his Wallabies debut in November, as did Wales prop Nicky Smith and Los Pumitas duo Tomás Lezana and Guido Petti.

In total, 67 players joined the ranks of Junior World Championship graduates in 2014, from 2013 winner Jack Nowell at the start of the Six Nations to Lezana in late November. This brings the total number to 335 since the tournament began in 2008. Nearly 200 players have also graduated from the Junior World Rugby Trophy in the same period.