World Rugby U20 Championship 2023: Pool C preview
Hosts South Africa face a tough test in Pool C, as Argentina and the upwardly mobile Italy and Georgia attempt to win their first U20 Championship crown.
Finally, following a four-year hiatus due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Rugby U20 Championship will return for its 13th edition and second held in South Africa on Saturday.
By virtue of their back-to-back tournament victories in 2018 and 2019, France head into this year’s U20 Championship as defending champions.
They will begin their title defence against Pool A rivals Japan at the Danie Craven Stadium at 14:00 local time (GMT+2) and have named a strong line-up. Baptiste Jauneau is at nine, having started 13 times for Clermont in the Top 14 this season, while Hugo Reus – who kicked 16 points on his first senior start for La Rochelle – is alongside him at 10.
Les Bleuets captain Lenni Nouchi insists the current squad are under no pressure to retain their crown, however, and join New Zealand as the only nation to win three or more U20 Championship titles in a row.
“We have discussed it, but every team writes its own history,” Nouchi said this week.
“We will use their legacy to compete this year, but it’s another generation, another team, so it’s another history and we’ll just play our game with no pressure from the fact that we are double champions.”
During their preparation for the tournament, Les Bleuets spent time with the senior France squad, which enabled the players to rub shoulders with some of those who have come before them.
Romain Ntamack, Demba Bamba, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Cameron Woki, Arthur Vincent and Ethan Dumortier all featured in at least one of the title-winning campaigns and have been included in the France training squad for Rugby World Cup 2023.
“We had half an hour to speak with them,” Nouchi said. “They shared their experiences, and we asked questions about what to expect.”
Asked if he and his team-mates took inspiration from those players’ achievements, Nouchi added: “Of course, how can we not?
“They have been in our shoes before us. When we see them now, they are chasing places in the squad for the 2023 World Cup, so we look up to them. They have reached the highest level, and we’re proud to look up to them.”
In the other match in Pool A, which will kick-off at Paarl Gymnasium at 16:00 local time, New Zealand take on Wales looking to avenge their defeat in the fifth-place semi-final in Argentina four years ago.
That victory, secured by a late Cai Evans penalty, was only Wales’ second against the Junior All Blacks in nine meetings at the U20 Championship and interim coach Mark Jones admits New Zealand are the favourites heading into Saturday’s encounter.
“We have to be underdogs based on where we finished last time in the Six Nations (sixth),” he said. “We’ve had no warm-up games, so you are only as good as your last game.”
New Zealand have won six of the 12 U20 Championships to be played since 2008 but finished outside of the top six for the first time in Argentina in 2019 and will want to put that right.
“I’m expecting a pretty high-speed ball carrying game against New Zealand, particularly through their forwards and their wings who are very prominent in their carry game,” Jones added.
“We are very aware of that so the challenge is trying to match that so we can get some control of the gain line.”
Hosts South Africa will headline the opening day when they take on Georgia at Danie Craven Stadium (kick-off 19:00 local time) – 28 years to the day since the Springboks won Rugby World Cup 1995 in iconic fashion.
Of course, none of the players who will compete in the U20 Championship were born when Joel Stransky kicked South Africa to victory against the All Blacks at Ellis Park but the legacy of that tournament, which helped to unite the newly-christened Rainbow Nation, lives on.
The Junior Springboks won their only title to date when the U20 Championship was last staged on the Western Cape and coach Bafana Nhleko hopes playing in front of home crowds can galvanise his young team.
“Playing at home is motivation and not a burden. The guys want to play in front of family and friends and have locals to support them,” Nhleko said.
“Most importantly though, they will be playing for each other as a group. If we do the right things, the momentum and support will grow as we go along.
“Coaches will always tell you they need more time, but I think we are ready to play. There is only so much that you can do as coaches and management, after all. There will be some nerves, but I think come Saturday this team will be ready to go.”
South Africa, who won the Six Nations U20 Super Series in Italy last year, have played Georgia four times at this level and have emerged victorious on each occasion.
Junior Lelos coach Lado Kilasonia believes the hosts are “probably the most physical among the U20 national teams” but says his side are ready for the challenge.
"I am sure they have extra motivation, as they are playing the opening match in front of their home crowd,” he said.
"This definitely is a challenge for us and a chance to improve the quality of our game, and to tailor and improve those little details which we have to pay attention to."
The hosts and Georgia are joined in Pool C by Argentina and Italy, who meet in the opening match of the 2023 tournament, at Paarl Gymnasium at 11:00 local time.
Los Pumitas finished fourth in Argentina in 2019 – losing to South Africa in the bronze final – but will know that their opponents have improved steadily at this level in recent years.
Argentina shade the U20 Championship head-to-head between the sides, three wins to two but those Italian victories both came in their last three meetings, including the most recent – a 30-26 pool-stage triumph in Béziers five years ago.
“It is a very physical pool,” Italy captain Giovanni Quattrini said. “Georgia, Argentina and South Africa, all of them are very physical and have a strong pack and scrum so we will have to be very strong on contact in all of the matches.
“It is going to be tough, but we are looking forward to it.”
The first match of Pool B between England and Ireland (kick-off 13:30 local time) at Paarl Gymnasium is a repeat of the pair’s 2019 U20 Championship opener.
Ireland won that match 42-26 in Santa Fe and they come into this one as back-to-back U20 Six Nations Grand Slam winners. They have also won their last three matches against England at U20 level.
“The last competitive game we played was against England and they have got quite a few familiar names on their team sheet as well,” Ireland coach Richie Murphy said.
“You are always excited to play England, but you are never happy that you are playing them. It’s obviously a big challenge, there’s a real tight rivalry between the guys so, in some ways, I suppose it is better that we start against England because we have a bit more of a feel for them.
“It is a very tough group, and something is going to have to give somewhere.”
England have won the U20 Championship three times, their most recent title coming on home soil in 2016 when they beat Ireland in the final.
Coach Mark Mapletoft has selected four debutants in his match-day squad for the opening match. “[We're looking for] loads of enthusiasm and a degree of ability in the positions they play,” he said.
Australia, beaten finalists four years ago, and Fiji – who beat Scotland in Argentina to retain their place in the U20 Championship – complete Pool B and meet at Danie Craven Stadium at 16:30 local time on Saturday.
It was the Australians who prevailed 58-5 when the teams met during the Oceania Rugby U20 Championship last July and Fiji have never beaten the Junior Wallabies at this level in seven attempts.
However, Australia coach Nathan Grey insists Saturday’s match will be a closer encounter, especially thanks to the exposure to elite competition the Fijian Drua’s involvement in Super Rugby Pacific has given members of the Fiji squad.
“At this age-group, 12 months is a very long time for the development of the players both physically and mentally,” he said. “I think you’re a bit naive if you look at last year and take a lot of gauge from that.
“Obviously, the Drua and being able to have young players play in that squad exposes them to a higher level of footy and the more consistently they can do that, the more consistently they can play.
“2023 is a totally new environment – we’ve certainly treated it that way – we’ll be focusing on what we need to do to make sure we can perform to a level that we’re happy with.”
Matches will be live streamed in each match centre on the World Rugby website if not aired by the following broadcasters: ESPN, Fancode, Georgia Public Broadcaster, ITV, L'Equipe, NBC, S4C, Sky NZ, Stan/Nine, Supersport, Virgin.