The upcoming Bledisloe Cup will further reinforce the importance of the World Rugby U20 Championship to the international player pathway, with many of those involved in the trans-Tasman series having graced the top level of age-grade rugby and plenty of others looking to follow suit.
Contained within Australia’s extended 45-man squad are six players who came agonisingly close to winning their country’s first-ever World Rugby U20 Championship title in Argentina last year.
And New Zealand boast a number of former U20 Championship players who’ve enhanced their claims on an All Blacks jersey through their form in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition and now look ready to make the step up.
Fraser McReight, who captained Australia in their 24-23 defeat to France in the U20 Championship final in Rosario, heads the list of Junior Wallabies destined for a big future in the game.
McReight showed all the hallmarks of a young Michael Hooper – who himself played in the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2011 – with his dynamic play around the park and breakdown skills in Argentina, and is seen as the heir apparent to the 99-cap Wallaby’s throne.
If selected, the start of McReight’s test career could coincide with Hooper becoming the 12th Australian – and third U20 graduate – to reach the milestone of a century of test appearances.
The inclusion of so many young guns in the Wallabies squad – there are 16 uncapped players all told – will come as no surprise to those who know the background of new head coach Dave Rennie.
With three titles and an unbeaten 15-match run, Michael Cheika’s successor is the most successful coach in World Rugby U20 Championship history and the first to step up to a senior head coach role.
And the New Zealander is also unrivalled when it comes to promoting youth with more than 30 players in the three U20 Championship-winning teams he coached having since played test rugby.
With no Bernard Foley or Quade Cooper standing in his way and James O’Connor viewed as a centre, Rennie could entrust the playmaking duties to Noah Lolesio, who started the Super Rugby AU final for the victorious Brumbies last month.
McReight and Lolesio are joined in the Wallabies squad by four other U20 Championship finalists in prop Angus Bell, second-row Trevor Hosea, blindside Harry Wilson and fly-half Will Harrison, who top-scored for Australia at the tournament and has since broken into the Waratahs’ first team.
New Zealand will host both games, on 11 and 18 October in Wellington and Auckland, as they look to maintain their iron-like grip on the Bledisloe Cup.
The All Blacks have held the trophy since 2003 and are looking to add a 49th series success to their collection.
Like Australia, they have a new head coach in Ian Foster and the former Chiefs man has named U20 Championship graduate Sam Cane – a direct opponent of Hooper’s in the semi-final of that 2011 competition in Italy – as his captain.
To date, New Zealand have handed caps to 49 players with U20 Championship experience and it seems certain the half-century will be reached this weekend.
Hooker Asafo Aumua is being backed as the next Codie Taylor because of his ability to run like a back, while Will Jordan has been knocking on the door for some time with his electric runs from deep for the Crusaders.
Caleb Clarke has caught the eye with his physicality on the wing in the Blues’ resurgence as a Super Rugby force, while number eight Akira Ioane is hoping to join his younger brother, Rieko, on an All Blacks team sheet in the very near future.
The fifth uncapped former World Rugby U20 Championship winner in Foster’s first squad is Mitchell Dunshea.
An injury to his second-row partner at the Crusaders, Quinten Strange, has opened the door for him and Canterbury co-coach Reuben Thorn says Dunshea’s call-up is a reward for all the hard work he has put in.
“His work-rate is massive, he gets around the field, makes a lot of tackles, good ball carrier. I don't think it will be an issue for him at the higher level,” Thorne said. “He’s got the talent, he’s got the desire, and he's tough as nails.”
While COVID-19 and the subsequent cancellation of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2020 denied a host of future stars the chance to showcase their skills in Italy, the Bledisloe Cup will serve as an inspiration of what the future could look like for Australia and New Zealand.