After a three-year wait, the World Rugby U20 Championship returns in South Africa this weekend. A keen observer of international age-grade rugby, former French international Olivier Magne will not be missing a beat as he has been invited to commentate on the tournament on L'Équipe TV, in France.

As a former coach of the France U20 team (2014-17), he is convinced of the significance of this competition for this age category in developing test-ready stars. 

"These are players who are practically 'finished' and who are potentially able to go and play for a place in the great French team, and that's something really new," he assures.

"It's a very beneficial situation for rugby as a whole, not just in France but worldwide. There's a development that's taking place quite rapidly and that's coming from new audiences who are discovering the game and who have a genuine interest in watching a show of this quality.

"It can also be found among U20 and women. It's also a way of promoting rugby to a wider audience. When you look at the under-20s, obviously it's not at the same level as the big national teams, but we're getting close and the matches are really of remarkable intensity. The gap between these youngsters and the adults, the big boys, as they say, is narrowing more and more."

The missing years

Nevertheless, all that time without competing against the best players in the world means there are more unknowns going into this tournament. 

"It's obvious that it's a long break, that's a bit of a handicap for this generation," admits the former flanker. And that's where the ambiguity lies. How will all these players, who have lived with little or no competition during this post-COVID-19 period, behave?

"Yes, that's the big question with regard to this competition that hasn't taken place for the last three years," he says.

"Of course, France is still the two-time defending champion with the generation of players from those years finding themselves in the French team now. But that's no guarantee.

"Be that as it may, it seems to me that given the performances we've seen, particularly in the U20 Six Nations tournament this year, and given the athletic, rugby and mental potential we're seeing in these players who are playing in the professional division, this is a French team that still has a great chance of playing for a world title again."

Coming up against New Zealand, Wales and Japan, Les Bleuets will be aiming to finish top of Pool A and take another step towards a third title.

The likely threats

So where does he see the main threats coming from?

"I think the Junior All Blacks may have a few problems in terms of their development, with perhaps a smaller pool of players than in the past," he considers. 

"South Africa is obviously a major nation because it is capable of producing a very high-quality generation, with players who can be quite exceptional and who can make a difference in competitions like this.

"And then Australia is always a bit of a question mark, thanks to a rather incredible generation that is capable of doing great things.

"But I wouldn't put my attention on a team from the southern hemisphere this year, more on a team from the northern hemisphere and a team like Georgia. They are showing real quality and very significant development in their young players and they are performing better and better as a team. I'll be keeping a pretty close eye on this Georgian team."