After a four-year absence due to COVID-19, the World Rugby U20 Championship makes a welcome return to the sporting calendar in June and July.

For the second time in history, South Africa will host the tournament, which runs from 24 June to 14 July, while the second-tier World Rugby U20 Trophy is also back on the agenda, in Kenya from 15-30 July.

Many players have used both competitions as a springboard to higher honours with 13 U20 Championship graduates going onto to win a century of caps or more for their country, collecting all manner of records and, in some cases, Rugby World Cup winner’s medals along the way.

Stuart Hogg (98 caps) and Taulupe Faletau (97), fitness-permitting, could join them on the magical three-figure mark for their countries during the current Six Nations.

Here we take a look at the top graduates in terms of caps won, starting with Wales’ current fly-half who, fittingly, comes in at number 10.

10) Dan Biggar (105 caps, Wales)*

Biggar hasn’t had the best of starts to this year’s Six Nations but the contribution he has made to Welsh rugby is undisputed.

Biggar played in the inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship, hosted by Wales in 2008, and won the first of his 105 senior caps for his country a few months later as a replacement against Canada.

He brought up his century for Wales in the 22-21 home defeat to Italy in last year’s Six Nations and is currently fourth in the all-time list of top Wales points scorers with 599.

The Toulon player, 33, also has four caps for the British and Irish Lions having been on two tours in 2017 and 2021.

9) Rob Simmons (106 caps, Australia)

Having played in back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championships in 2008 and 2009, Simmons quickly became a mainstay of the Wallabies second-row.

His 106 caps came in a 10-year period between 2010 and 2020 with his 100th test appearance coming against Georgia at Rugby World Cup 2019.

It was his third Rugby World Cup having previously featured at the 2011 and 2015 tournaments.

8) Eben Etzebeth (110 caps, South Africa)

The second-row enforcer is still going strong in international rugby and has every chance of catching Victor Matfield to become the most-capped Springbok of all time.

Etzebeth is currently fifth on the list on 110 caps – 17 behind fellow second-row Matfield who retired in 2015.

The 31-year-old played at the World Rugby U20 Championship as a 19-year-old in 2011, the year before South Africa hosted and won the competition.

Making an instant impact on the step up to the test arena, Etzebeth was nominated for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year award in just his second year at that level in 2013.

A Rugby World Cup 2019 winner, Etzebeth made his 100th test appearance in the series-clinching 30-14 win against Wales in July 2022 and no doubt would have got to the milestone sooner had it not been for COVID-19.

7) Will Genia (110 caps, Australia)

The Wallaby magician succeeded George Gregan – give or take a couple of years – and did the famous gold and green number nine jersey proud.

A graduate of the inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship in 2008, Genia made his senior test bow the following year in a 22-16 Bledisloe Cup defeat.

To hand the then-21-year-old his debut in such a prestigious fixture showed the confidence the Wallabies had in Genia’s ability and he went on to repay them over the years with a string of brilliant displays.

Genia, who was the Wallabies’ starting nine in the final of Rugby World Cup 2015, became just the 10th Australian test centurion when he ran out against England at Twickenham in 2018, and only the second-ever Australian scrum-half after Gregan to earn the honour.

The curtain was drawn on his 110-cap career when Australia exited Rugby World Cup 2019 after a quarter-final defeat to England.

6) Beauden Barrett (112 caps, New Zealand)

A World Rugby U20 Championship winner with New Zealand in 2011, Barrett has gone on to achieve pretty much everything there is in the game.

He made his debut off the bench in a 60-0 win against Ireland in Hamilton in June 2012 and went 26 tests before experiencing defeat in the black jersey.

A classy operator at fly-half or full-back, Barrett became the second player after former team-mate Richie McCaw, to win back-to-back World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year awards (2016 and 2017).

The 31-year-old from New Plymouth is joint-seventh with Dan Carter in terms of most All Blacks appearances and has scored 720 points with just Carter and Andrew Mehrtens ahead of him.

Fittingly, he marked his 100th test in style with two tries in a 54-16 win against Wales in October 2021.

5) Aaron Smith (114 caps, New Zealand)

Barrett’s long-time half-back partner comes in just ahead of him on 114 caps, a tally he’ll be hoping to add to at a third Rugby World Cup later this year.

Smith was a member of the New Zealand squad that won the first World Rugby U20 Championship title in 2008, but he had to wait four years before making his test debut.

It came in the first test against Ireland in June 2012 with Barrett joining him at that level in the final match of the series.

Smith’s era as the All Blacks’ scrum-half has been long and glorious. In addition to more than 100 caps, it includes a Rugby World Cup 2015 winner’s medal and eight Rugby Championship titles with the prospect of more to come.

4) Ben Youngs (122 caps, England)*

The third scrum-half in the list and England’s most-capped men’s player of all time.

Youngs used both the sevens and World Rugby U20 Championship pathway as a route to the top, appearing in the 2008 and 2009 editions of the elite age-grade tournament.

First capped against Scotland in March 2010, Youngs is one of only three England men’s players to go on and reach three figures.

Like Barrett, he marked his milestone 100th game, in October 2020, in style with a brace of tries in a man-of-the-match performance against Italy.

This time last year, Youngs overtook Jason Leonard’s existing landmark of 114 tests for England when he came off the bench against Wales, as well as playing in his 50th Six Nations match.

3) Michael Hooper (124 caps, Australia)

Having won the bronze medal with Australia at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2011, Hooper became part of the Wallabies setup the following year.

While his test debut may have started with a shock 9-6 home defeat to Scotland in June 2012, Hooper does not know what a lost cause is.

A fearless competitor, Hooper is one of the best operators at the breakdown the rugby world has seen.

Leading by his actions, the openside has captained the Wallabies a record 68 times and was twice nominated for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year award (2015 and 2021).

With 124 caps, he is Australia’s fourth-highest all-time appearance holder.

2) James Slipper (127 caps, Australia)

Australia’s most-capped prop and third top for overall Australia appearances.

Slipper graduated from the squad that came fourth at the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2009 alongside fellow centurion Rob Simmons.

But Slipper’s test debut came first if only by a month, in a 27-17 win against England in Perth in June 2010. It was a meteoric rise considering he only had three games of Super Rugby under his belt for the Reds.

A tight-head in his U20s days, Slipper has won the vast majority of his 73 test starts, 12 as captain, at loosehead. However, he did pull on the number three jersey for the first time in nine years due to injuries at tight-head against England in November 2021.

At that stage, Slipper’s test career was already in three figures, with the prop becoming Australia’s 13th centurion in a 24-22 Bledisloe Cup win against New Zealand in November 2020.

1) Sam Whitelock (143 caps, New Zealand)

Whitelock is by some distance the most-capped World Rugby U20 Championship graduate and could become the first player to have gone down that route to get to 150 caps.

The hulking second-row graduated from the 2008 U20 Championship-winning team to become one of the most consistent test performers around.

As was the case with Barrett and Smith, Whitelock marked his debut for the All Blacks against Ireland in 2010 with a couple of tries.

And in only his second year of test rugby, Whitelock won the first of two Rugby World Cups and appeared in a third tournament in Japan in 2019.

Whitelock won his 50th cap against England in November 2013 and his 100th against Australia in August 2018, in Sydney, a 38-13 win.

He was the eighth New Zealander to achieve the milestone but in a record time of eight years and 67 days.

A month before the century match, he started all three tests against France in the same pack as his brother Luke.

Only Alun Wyn Jones (169) and Richie McCaw (148) have won more than his 143 caps.

*does not include British and Irish Lions caps