Since its inception in 2008, the World Rugby U20 Championship has unearthed countless stars of the future that have gone on to enjoy successful senior careers.
COVID-19 may have deprived us of the last two editions of the World Rugby U20 Championship but the pathway is a proven one with Rugby World Cup winners, Six Nations and Rugby Championship winners, British and Irish Lions series winners and Super Rugby winners among the 809-strong group who made their test debuts after appearing in international age-grade rugby’s marquee tournament.
It has become a well-worn and familiar pathway to the top for the cream of young talent around the world but the identity of the very first ‘graduate’ – on this day (3 September) 13 years ago – is probably unknown to most people.
Just over 10 weeks after the last of his five appearances at the inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship in Wales in 2008, Alatasi Tupou ran out against the All Blacks in New Plymouth, New Zealand to take his place at full-back for Samoa. Roysiu Tolufale and Maselino Paulino came off bench to join him as graduates in the 101-14 defeat.
Tupou’s wasn’t the quickest ‘conversion’, however. That honour belongs to Springbok fly-half Handré Pollard who went from captaining South Africa in the 2014 Championship final and being named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year in New Zealand to making his Springbok test debut against Scotland in Port Elizabeth in just eight days.
Tupou only won one further cap, as a replacement scrum-half against Papua New Guinea a year later, with his focus switching to rugby sevens and a distinguished career on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, playing in 70 events and three Rugby World Cup Sevens. But countless others stayed the distance in 15s. =
All Black Sam Whitelock is the most-capped graduate with 127 tests to his name. The second-row is one of eight players to have reached three figures, with Leigh Halfpenny of Wales and Whitelock’s team-mate, Aaron Smith, the most recent additions to the centurions’ club.
For many years, Argentina have been the most prolific users of the U20 to test rugby pathway, capping no less than 76 players who graced the U20 Championship at the beginning of their journey to the top. Some of their better known graduates are Martín Landajo, Nicolás Sánchez, Pablo Matera and current Los Pumas captain Julián Montoya.
But that tally has been overtaken by France (78 graduates) who have made a conscious effort to place the accent on youth with 15 players added to their list since Fabien Galthié took over as coach following RWC 2019.
The squad that Les Bleus hope will deliver home Rugby World Cup glory in 2023 draws heavily on the World Rugby U20 Championship title-winning teams of 2018 and 2019, fly-half Romain Ntamack being a prime example.
Whether Ntamack and others from the so-called 'golden generation' can join a select group of players – 15 – to have won both the U20 Championship and Rugby World Cup remains to be seen.
U20 Championship graduates – by numbers
1 – Rugby World Cup winning captain in South Africa’s Siya Kolisi at Japan 2019
3 – World Rugby Player of the Year award winners – Brodie Retallick (2014), Beauden Barrett (2016 and 2017) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (2019
11 – players who graduated in the first year of the U20 Championship competition in 2008 – among them legends of the game in David Pocock, Nathan Hirayama, Quade Cooper, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar and Michael Leitch.
15 – players to win both the U20 Championship and Rugby World Cup. Twelve from New Zealand and three for South Africa
23 – number of U20 Championship graduates selected across the South Africa (nine) and British and Irish Lions (16) squads for the decided third test in 2021
46 – test tries scored by All Black Julian Savea – the most by any graduate
50 – the total so far in 2021. Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg brought up the half-century in the second encounter between South Africa and Argentina in Port Elizabeth
57 – captains of their country. The last to join the club was New Zealand's Aaron Smith against Fiji in July
809 – the number of U20 Championship graduates
1,053 – test points scored by Owen Farrell for England and the British and Irish Lions, the most by any graduate