South America has a very clear pathway for its full national teams. Los Teritos, Los Pumitas and Cóndores U20 have all been stepping stones to the glory of representing Uruguay, Argentina and Chile at the highest of levels.

Argentina hold the record for most U20 graduates in test rugby but Uruguay are only one behind.

Taking into account only those who began playing for their country's U20 side from 2008 – in previous years, U19s and then U21s were the norm and many, many, more came through that pathway – looking at Uruguay’s names is a who’s who of Uruguayan rugby. In total, 84 Teros first cut their teeth with Los Teritos.

With Los Teritos already in Nairobi preparing for another campaign in the World Rugby U20 Trophy, of which they were the original champions, they certainly have expertise at hand.

Assistant coach Alejandro Nieto was in the squad that won that first U20 Trophy in Santiago, Chile, 15 years ago. He went on to have a prolific career at test level, playing in two Rugby World Cups.

The head coach, Guillermo Storace is an U19 graduate. “I played in 1991, 1992 and 1993,” says the former prop.

A member of the first generation of Uruguayan players to play age-grade rugby outside of their region, Storace played in the then FIRA-AER World Championship, dominated at that time by France and Argentina. He went on to play for Uruguay at Rugby World Cup 1999 and 2003.

His son Guillermo Jr. is in Nairobi and has future Tero written all over him. A centre, he was heavily involved with this year’s Super Rugby Americas champion side Peñarol Rugby.

Unless injury intervenes, he will not be involved with Uruguay at RWC 2023, but it is a question of when, not if, he makes his test debut.

“My players are not focusing on anything else than the U20s at the moment,” adds Storace in his third stint as the team’s coach. “Four or five have played for Peñarol."

Big names

Elevation to the national team from the U20s is always huge news for the players, clubs and families involved.

“I remember coming back from Chile in 2008 and one morning I was on my way to the gym when the phone rang. I was needed in Romania and my flight was leaving in a handful of hours,” recalls Uruguay’s most capped player Diego Magno of his test debut, a month after success at the U20 Trophy.

“Nowadays, some players are already part of professional programmes and it is different to my days. But the pride of playing for your country at 18, 19, 20 never changes, knowing it can be the start of something bigger.”

Seventeen of the squad that won the first U20 Trophy went on to play for their country, with notable names including Jerónimo Etcheverry, winger Leandro Leivas, prop Matías Benítez, Juan Diego Ormaechea and RWC 2019 captain Juan Manuel Gaminara.

The win came with promotion to the U20 Championship in which they only played one year as from 2010, it was downsized from 16 to 12 teams. Twelve Teritos from the team that played in Japan went on to the test arena, with Gastón Mieres and Diego Magno in the pre-RWC 2023 squad.

Los Teritos would go on to play in the Trophy every year but 2012 until COVID-19 intervened, ensuring the pathway was slick.

In fact, of the 46-player squad that is working under Esteban Meneses ahead of three warm-up games and their fifth Rugby World Cup, 28 first played for the country in World Rugby U20 tournaments.

Captain Andrés Vilaseca played in Russia and Uruguay in 2010 and 2011 respectively, with Agustín Ormaechea the captain in Tbilisi, and future Teros team-mates such as Felipe Berchesi and Rodrigo Silva. The four are aiming for a third consecutive Rugby World Cup appearance.

After winning the inaugural U20 Trophy, success has yet to return to the shores of the River Plate, with third place their best position since, in Portugal 2015 and at home in Montevideo in 2017.

Of the 2015 vintage, number eight Manuel Diana was the best forward and top-try scorer in the recent Super Rugby Americas, with fly-half and full-back Felipe Etcheverry chosen the MVP. Second-row Manuel Leindekar moved to France soon after his U20 days were over in 2017 and is expected to play a huge role at the Rugby World Cup later this year.

The only time the U20 Trophy was played in Uruguay saw Los Teritos beat Namibia to claim third with Leindekar (pictured, centre) and future Teros team-mate Santiago Civetta (third from left) part of the side. Civetta will aim for a second Rugby World Cup after missing all of this year following an Achilles operation.

"Age-grade rugby is very important"

Civetta was the captain in Romania 2018, the last of his three U20 Trophies. A year later, he was in the team that beat Fiji in Kamaishi, Uruguay’s biggest ever win. His time with the U20s had made him ready.

No-one could possibly know that 2019 was to the be the last U20 Trophy, or U20 Championship for that matter, until this year.

Of the team that finished fourth in Sao José dos Campos, Brasil, and still aiming to go to their first Rugby World Cup are Felipe Aliaga, Ignacio Péculo, Felipe Arcos Pérez, speedster Baltazar Amaya, Carlos Deus and prop Reinaldo Piussi.

Most of the rest of the pre-RWC 2023 squad that have not been involved in the U20 Trophy have nonetheless played age-grade international rugby outside of World Rugby’s events.

“Age grade rugby is very important for us in the early development of our players,” concludes Storace as his team prepares to face USA on 15 July.