There is no better example of the success of the World Rugby U20 Trophy as a vehicle to prepare players for the highest level of the game than the Portugal team that qualified for Rugby World Cup 2023 in Dubai last November.
Four players who started the 16-16 draw with the USA in the decisive match of the Final Qualification Tournament featured in the final of the last edition of the U20 Trophy in Brazil, a heart-breaking 35-34 defeat to Japan in 2019.
And in addition to José Madeira, Jéronimo Portela, Rodrigo Marta and the star and top try-scorer of the 2019 tournament, Raffaele Storti, four other members of the starting line-up came up through the U20 pathway but at an earlier date, including captain and inspiration Tomás Appleton.
Portugal are not the exception, though, the make-up of the squads at Rugby World Cup 2019 highlighted just how important the U20 pathway is in terms of developing future stars of the game.
While there were 218 players in Japan who had experienced playing in the top-level U20 Championship, a further 83 had come up through the ranks via the U20 Trophy, age-grade international rugby’s second-tier competition.
Georgia’s Otari Giorgadze, Beka Gorgadze, Giorgi Kveseladze and Giorgi Melikidze, for example, were members of the Junior Lelos team that lifted the U20 Trophy in 2015, while centre Lasha Khmaladze holds the record as the most-capped U20 Trophy graduate having played 94 tests since his debut in 2008.
World Rugby U20 Trophy 2019 - Japan U20 v Portugal U20 https://t.co/PMRjCHDuSh— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) July 21, 2019
The U20 Trophy has produced many memorable moments as well as players, but it would be hard to top the 2019 final in São Jose dos Campos.
In a free-flowing match unrecognisable from the weather-affected final played between these two teams in Montevideo in 2017, Japan once again came out on top to secure promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship – but not before Portugal gave them the mightiest of scares.
Japan raced into a 14-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes, but Portugal showed great resolve and no little skill to fight their way back into the contest at the Estadio Martins Pereira.
From the 36th to the 76th minute, the Portuguese were ahead on the scoreboard despite being second-best at scrum time throughout, but a try from full-back Ryosuke Kawase and the all-important conversion from Ryuto Fukuyama denied them a place in the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time.
It was the third time Japan have won age-grade international rugby’s second-tier competition, following on from their successes in 2014 and 2017, with promotion achieved to the U20 Championship on each occasion.
Here is our tournament-by-tournament guide to the U20 Trophy.
U20 Trophy 2008
Final result: Uruguay 20-8 Chile
Top points scorer: Goderdzi Joglidze (GEO) – 50
Top try scorer: Kim Hyun Soo (KOR) – 7
A Los Teritos team containing a test captain in the making in Juan Manuel Gaminara, and other future stars such as Diego Magno and Jeronimo Etcheverry, broke the hearts of the partisan 7,000 crowd in attendance at the Stade Français Club in Santiago with a stirring come-from-behind win against hosts Chile.
A final between the two unbeaten sides from the pool stages looked to be heading the way of the home side when they raced into an 8-0 lead, but Los Teritos replied with 20 unanswered points, scoring tries through Magno and fly-half Germán Albanell, to take the inaugural title. The absence of a semi-final stage meant the pool runners-up went into a straight shootout for the bronze, Georgia winning an all-east European affair with Romania, 34-10
U20 Trophy 2009
Final result: Romania 25-13 USA
Top points scorer: Stefan Patrascu (ROM) – 61
Top try scorer: Ionut Puisoru (ROM) / Thomas Claps (CHI) / Sung Kun Cha (KOR) / Collins Omae (KEN) – 5
Like the inaugural final, the eventual winners had to come from behind with Romania overhauling a 13-3 interval deficit against the USA.
Barry Sheehan’s yellow card on the stroke of half-time proved costly as Romania scored through Adrian Apostol within four minutes of the re-start before Marian Pirvu and Stefan Patrascu added their names to the scoresheet late on.
With the U20 Championship being cut from 16 teams to 12 in 2010, champions Romania missed out on promotion. Maintaining their form from the year before, Chile claimed the bronze medal with a 19-17 win over the hosts Kenya.
U20 Trophy 2010
Final result: Italy 36-7 Japan
Top points scorer: Alberto Chillon (ITA) - 51
Top try scorer: Takaaki Nakazuru (JPN) - 4
Despite being guaranteed a return to the top-tier U20 Championship in 2011 as hosts of World Rugby’s premier age-grade tournament, Italy were determined to take their place among the elite in their own right as U20 Trophy 2010 champions.
Kicking off with comfortable wins against Papua New Guinea (74-0) and defending champions Romania (30-7) in Pool A of what was a hugely competitive tournament with Japan, Canada and Uruguay also having played at a higher level the year before, the Azzurrini then beat Uruguay thanks to a last-gasp penalty try.
Pool B winners Japan lay in wait but an early try from dashing centre Tommaso Benvenuti calmed any nerves the young Italians may have had, and Antonio Denti, Michele Mortali and Gabriele Cicchinelli confirmed their dominance against the gallant Japanese, who scored a late consolation try through Mao Enoki. Denis Kukishev’s penalty, 12 minutes into extra-time, saw Russia claim the bronze medal at Romania’s expense.
U20 Trophy 2011
Final result: Samoa 31-24 Japan
Top points scorer: Bakhva Kobakhidze (GEO) – 52
Top try scorer: Robert Lilomaiava (SAM) – 9
The 2011 final followed the same pattern as the first two tournaments with Samoa trailing Japan 17-0 before finally showing the sort of form that had seen them sweep Uruguay, USA and Russia aside in topping Pool A with a perfect record.
Tries from wing Masakatasu Hikosaka and hooker Yoshikatsu Hikosaka put Japan on the front foot, but in typical Samoan fashion, they struck back with dangerous broken-field play leading to tries from Jordan Taufua, Robert Lilomaiava and Faavae Faavae for a 19-17 half-time lead.
Winger Viliamu Alauni dotted the ball down to make it 24-17 to the Samoans, but back came Japan with prop Mao Enoki’s second try in as many finals levelling the scores. Then, with the match heading towards extra-time, full-back Peter Schuster scored at the death to win it for the Pacific islanders. Georgia outscored Uruguay two tries to nil to win the third place play-off, 20-15.
U20 Trophy 2012
Final result: USA 37-33 Japan
Top point scorer: Madison Hughes (USA) – 72
Top try scorer: Hosea Saumaki (TGA) – 7
USA became the first host nation to win the Junior World Rugby Trophy, as it was then known, on home soil after a thrilling victory over Japan in Utah.
The 2012 final was typical of the nail-biting drama evident throughout a tournament that did much to boost rugby’s appeal in the US. In an epic match that saw 10 tries shared equally and the lead change hands seven times, USA withstood one last onslaught from Japan to cling on for a 37-33 win in front of a sell-out crowd.
Having lost the two previous finals it was a case of more disappointment for Japan who were christened the ‘Cardiac Kids’ because of their involvement in a series of heart-stopping pool matches, and the final was no different.
Having fought their way back from a 14-point deficit in the first half, the match was ultimately won by winger Noah Tarrant’s hat-trick try in the 76th minute and the determined defensive rearguard that followed. Madison Hughes kicked 12 points in the match to take his overall tournament tally to 72 points, which is still a tournament record to this day.
Manase Folau’s late try saw Tonga deny Georgia 31-29 in an equally thrilling third place play-off.
U20 Trophy 2013
Final result: Italy 45-23 Canada
Top point scorer: Shane O'Leary (CAN) – 45
Top try scorer: Kai Ishii (JPN) – 8
For the second time in five years the U20 Trophy was held in Chile but this time it was Italy not Uruguay who came out on top.
Italy secured an immediate return to the U20 Championship after overcoming Canada 45-23 in the final in Temuco.
The Azzurrini, who were relegated to the second tier after losing 19-17 to Fiji in the 11th place play-off in 2012, won all four of their matches in Chile to ensure their place back among the world’s elite U20 teams.
Having safely negotiated their way through the pool stages, Italy made their intentions clear from the start of the final at the Estadio Germán Becker with Marcello Violi crossing in the opening minute.
But, despite leading only 10-6 at half-time, Italy took advantage when Canada had two players sin-binned in the second half, scoring five tries, including a second by Violi, to run out impressive winners.
Chile made it onto podium, as they did in 2008, after beating Japan 38-35 to claim the bronze medal.
U20 Trophy 2014
Host: Hong Kong
Final result: Japan 35-10 Tonga
Top point scorer: Revaz Jinchvelashvili (GEO) – 63
Top try scorer: Vakhtang Amiranashvili (GEO) / German Kessler (URU) – 4
Having fallen at the final hurdle on three successive occasions between 2010 and 2012, Japan were determined to finally win the U20 Trophy but they began with a defeat to Uruguay.
However, they bounced back brilliantly, winning the rest of their matches, including victory over first-time finalists Tonga.
After a tight first half in which Japan led 10-3, second-half tries from Shunta Nakamura, Shuhei Narita and Takayuki Watanabe confirmed the win for the Asian team and promotion to the U20 Championship.
The third place play-off was a battle of the Americas between two former Trophy champions. It went right down to the wire with the USA holding on to beat ill-disciplined Uruguay, who finished the game down to 12 men, 26-25.
U20 Trophy 2015
Final result: Georgia 49-24 Canada
Top point scorer: Revaz Jinchvelashvili (GEO) – 51
Top try scorer: Christo van der Merwe (NAM) – 5
Georgia reaffirmed their status as a growing power in world rugby with a maiden U20 Trophy title. For many in the Junior Lelos ranks the win in the final over Canada marked the start of something special, especially scrum-half Vasil Lobzhanidze who, just four months later, would go on to become the youngest played to appear at a Rugby World Cup, aged just 18 years and 340 days.
Canada went into the game at the Estadio Universitario with a settled team showing only one change from the starting XV that had beaten Tonga to reach a second Trophy final in three years. But the Canadians were second-best for large periods of the game against a Georgian outfit that demonstrated their ability to be clinical in the tight as well as the loose.
Tries before the break tries for Mikheili Babunashvili, Giorgi Melikidze, Badri Liparteliani and Tornike Zoidze were followed by three more in the second half, scored by Anzor Sichinava, Giorgi Kveseladze, Revazi Jintchvelashvili.
Canada captain Lucas Rumball served notice of the ability with a try on the stroke of half-time, while fellow loose forward, Luke Bradley, grabbed a brace.
Tonga and Uruguay served up a feast of tries in a third place play-off that ended in a 44-43 win for the South Americans.
U20 Trophy 2016
Final result: Samoa 38-32 Spain (AET)
Top point scorer: Hanco Germishuys (USA) – 48
Top try scorer: Hanco Germishuys (USA) – 8
Played under trialled scoring laws with six points awarded for a try, the 2016 edition of the U20 Trophy was a feast of running rugby. A then tournament record 1,054 points were scored with 70 of them coming in a classic final between Samoa and Spain that was won in the fifth minute of extra-time thanks to a try from replacement Tivoli Masaga.
Even for a tournament where entertainment had been the order of the day throughout, few people would have predicted that the final would have been quite so dramatic. Leading by eight points with nine minutes left to go, Spain threatened to cause an upset against the side relegated from the U20 Championship in 2015. However, number eight Elia Elia’s hat-trick try handed Samoa a lifeline which they gratefully accepted when Masaga crossed in the corner. Despite his treble, Elia missed out on the top try-scorer award to another number eight, USA’s Hanco Germishuys.
In the third place play-off, five first-half tries meant the bronze medal was Fiji’s long before Namibia staged a second-half fight-back.
U20 Trophy 2017
Final result: Japan 14-3 Portugal
Top point scorer: Alejo Piazza (URU) – 40
Top try scorer: Faulua Makisi (JPN) – 6
Not even the torrential rain could dampen Japan’s enthusiasm as they celebrated a return to the World Rugby U20 Championship at the first attempt following a 14-3 victory over valiant Portugal in a truncated U20 Trophy final.
With large pools of surface water on the Estadio Charrúa pitch worsening all the time and thunderstorms rolling in, the decision was taken by referee Francisco Gonzalez to abandon play with 15 minutes to go. Japan led 14-3 at the time and were declared the winners.
Understandably, the tactics of both teams were clear from the start – kick for territory and hope for a mistake – and Japan’s first try from Faulua Makisi, his sixth of the tournament, came from a charged down clearance kick.
Conceding a scrum penalty try seven minutes into the second half ultimately sealed Portugal’s fate.
Hosts Uruguay managed a repeat of the bronze medal they won in Lisbon two years earlier with a relatively comfortable victory over Namibia in the penultimate game of the day.
U20 Trophy 2018
Final result: Fiji 58-8 Samoa
Top point scorer: Denzo Bruwer (NAM) – 59
Top try scorer: Manuel Ardao (URU) – 6
Fiji celebrated a return to the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time since 2014 in typically flamboyant fashion.
Inspired by full-back Nabetelevu Turaganivalu and centres Vilimoni Botitu and Ilikena Vudogo, Fiji were irrepressible in attack as they ruthlessly capitalised on basic Samoan errors, of which there were many, to put the two-time champions to the sword, scoring nine tries in a 58-8 win.
Samoa’s lack of patience in attack and high turnover rate hurt them badly and Fiji could even afford to lose a man to the sin-bin in each half as they recorded the biggest win in the history of U20 Trophy finals.
In a match of 16 tries, Manuel Pinto, Nuno Mascarenhas and Duarte Campos each bagged a brace as Portugal maintained their form from the year before to beat Namibia 67-36 and win the bronze medal.
U20 Trophy 2019
Final: Japan 35-34 Portugal
Top point scorer: Will Percillier (Canada) – 65
Top try scorer: Raffaele Storti (Portugal) – 9
When Japan scored a promotion-clinching try with two minutes to go in the final against Portugal, it brought the curtain down on a final day of high drama at the Estadio Martins Pereira.
Their 35-34 victory, in what was a re-run of the 2017 showpiece, was the third consecutive match to be decided by three points or less. In addition to the Japan v Portugal thriller, arguably the best U20 Trophy final of all time, Brazil’s seventh-place play-off with Hong Kong China went to sudden-death extra-time, the hosts winning their first match at this level thanks to a drop goal, while Tonga’s play-off for bronze with Uruguay would have gone beyond the 80 minutes had Los Teritos kicker Matias D’Avanzo not struck the upright with an all-important conversion.
Japan’s success ensured captain and back-row Shota Fukui created a piece of U20 Trophy history. Fukui, then a winger, was part of the 2017-winning side and becomes the first player to win the title twice – and in very different positions, too!
Portugal may have lost out on a maiden U20 Trophy title, but they unearthed a player with a very bright future in 18-year-old winger Raffaele Storti. A brace of tries in the final took the speedster’s tally to nine, equalling the record for a single U20 Trophy tournament set by Samoa’s Robert Lilomaiava in 2011.
* Law trials with points (T=6, PT=8, C/PG/DG=2)