Five takeaways from day one of the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023
We pick out some of the main talking points and trends from an enthralling first round as the world’s best young rugby players served up a feast of rugby.
The World Rugby U20 Championship resumed on Tuesday with more high-scoring matches and a set of results that very few would have predicted.
Back-to-back defending champions France continued their impressive start of their title defence against New Zealand, while Wales’ comeback win against 14-man Japan keeps their hopes of topping Pool A alive.
In Pool B, there were wins for Ireland and England, while all four teams are still in the running to top Pool C following historic wins for Georgia and Italy.
Let’s start by highlighting the two big shock results of the day which blew Pool C wide open.
In three previous U20 Championship meetings with South Africa, Italy had lost by an average margin of 50 points. But this Azzurrini side are a different proposition as their best-ever finish of third in the U20 Six Nations showed. Even in their round one defeat to Argentina, they looked the better side until prop Destiny Aminu was sent off in the 15th minute and they put that disappointment behind them with a brilliant display of wet-weather rugby securing a 34-26 win against the hosts.
Georgia had only won a third of their matches since their introduction to the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2016, and while one of those came against Argentina in the ninth-place semi-final in 2017, Los Pumitas were strong favourites to secure victory when the sides met at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch. However, it was the Junior Lelos who won, by a convincing 20-0 scoreline, thanks to tries from Luka Khorbaladze and Basa Khonelidze and 10 points from the boot of Petre Khutsishvili. While Argentina rallied, they still failed to trouble the scoreboard for only the second time in 62 tournament matches.
Whether it’s the weather, which has been more typical of a rainy day in Dublin than the Western Cape, or simply a shift in the balance of power, the north has held sway over the south in the first two rounds. In fixtures between teams from the two hemispheres, it is currently 7-3 to the north with Six Nations teams occupying the top two spots in Pool A and Pool B and Italy and Georgia still in with a chance of finishing top of Pool C.
Could the U20 Championship be on the brink of the first all-northern semi-final line-up?
Visa delays meant Posolo Tuilagi, the son of former Samoa international Henry, missed out on France’s round one win over Japan. Les Bleuets did not miss him on that occasion as they ran out 75-12 winners, but you could see from his performance against New Zealand why they were so keen to get him back in their pack.
At 149kg, there can surely never have been a weightier player in the U20 Championship and his huge frame is a real asset in conditions that are suited to close-quarters rugby. Tuilagi was integral to the success of France’s rolling maul as well as making big dents in the defence whenever he carried and to top it all, he scored twice.
Damian Markus scored one of the best individual tries you will ever see at the U20 Championship when he did a very passable impression of Cheslin Kolbe from a first-phase scrum move. Picking the ball up 65 metres out, the scrum-cap-wearing inside-centre showed a brilliant turn of pace, scooting over the rain-sodden pitch before stepping the last defender – no easy feat given how soft the turf was underfoot – on a brilliant run to the line. At 1.67m tall, Markus is a few centimetres shorter than fellow pocket rocket Kolbe but the 20-year-old from Western Province appears to be every bit as quick and elusive.
Even in difficult conditions, the current edition of the U20 Championship has maintained the tradition of being a feast of attacking rugby. A whopping 96 tries and 694 points have been scored across the first two rounds (at an average of eight tries and 58 points) and, at this rate, this year’s tournament is on course to be the most attack-minded yet. The record number of tries and points for a single tournament, where 12 teams were involved, was set in Georgia in 2017 when 239 tries were scored (an average of eight per game) and 1,789 points (an average of 60).
One thing the tournament hasn’t yet produced, however, is a standout finisher. As things stand, no less than 10 players are tied on two tries apiece.