Spain make their World Rugby U20 Championship debut in Cape Town, but they face something of a baptism of fire as they meet defending champions France in the first of three Saturday matches at DHL Stadium. 

At the same venue, Ireland take on U20 Men's Six Nations rivals Italy in an encounter that – if the match between the two sides in that competition earlier this year is any indication – could be very close, before hosts South Africa meet the always dangerous Fiji in the final match of the day there.

U20 Six Nations champions England kick-off proceedings against Argentina at Athlone Sports Stadium, before Australia face a potentially tricky match against a Georgia side it’s never wise to underestimate, as England recently found. And inaugural Rugby Championship U20 champions New Zealand round things off at the venue against a side they know very well, Wales.

All signposts point to a fascinating opening day’s action in South Africa as the race to succeed France as champions gets under way. Here’s a closer look at all six matches on day one. 

France v Spain – kick-off 14:00 (all times GMT+2)

Sebastien Calvet’s defending champions France kick-off their quest for a record-equalling fourth successive title at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium against international neighbours and Pool A rivals they have never before played. 

It’s not a match France – shorn of key players through injury, call-ups to the senior men’s July tour squad, and the Top 14 final – will take lightly, despite holding a massive advantage in terms of experience, as they look to double down on last year’s impressive run to the title. 

Calvet has picked a strong line-up for the opener, with La Rochelle fly-half Hugo Reus, the 2023 tournament’s leading points scorer, taking over captaincy duties from Brive half-back partner Léo Carbonneau. Between them the duo have nearly 70 senior appearances for their clubs.

It can’t get much tougher for Spain, promoted after winning the U20 Trophy competition last year, than to open their account against the reigning champions. Coach Ricardo Martinena has chosen a solid team for the occasion, led by Bayonne-based second row Manex Ariceta.

Nico Infer and Gonzalo Otamendi are the half-backs, linking that powerful pack – and its mobile back row – and a backline featuring rising French club stars Alberto Carmona and Hugo Pichardie.

England v Argentina  – kick-off 14:00 

England open their Pool C account against 2019 hosts Argentina at Athlone Sports Stadium. Four wins and a draw – finishing with a dramatic come-from-behind 45-31 win over France handed Mark Mapletoft’s side the U20 Men's Six Nations title earlier this year. 

That performance in Pau in March is exactly the sort of all-out attack-minded form the coach will look for from captain Finn Carnduff and his team-mates as they look for a first title since 2016.

No fewer than 18 players in Mapletoft’s first 23 of the U20 Championship were involved in that successful Six Nations’ run, while Jack Bracken and scrum-half Ollie Allan will earn their first competitive caps, and replacements Cam Miell, Lucas Friday and Ben Coen are also in line for a first cap. 

Los Pumitas, under coach Álvaro Galindo, finished third at the recent inaugural U20 Rugby Championship, beating hosts Australia in their opener before losing to both New Zealand and South Africa. Captain Elías Efrain and his players know they’re in for a tough job against a buoyant England in the opening match as they look to improve on their ninth-place finish last year.

Australia v Georgia –  kick-off 16:30

This year’s World Rugby U20 Championship race comes with a whole new momentum, after South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina prepared for their Cape Town challenge by competing in the inaugural Rugby Championship U20 competition in Australia. 

That wasn’t the best of tournaments for Nathan Grey’s side. They finished bottom of the standings on the Sunshine Coast in May, and will look to get their Pool B challenge off to the best of starts against Georgia at Athlone Sports Stadium.

And he has made a number of changes to the side for the opening match against Georgia from the one that lost to New Zealand last time out. Waratahs’ Bryn Edwards comes into the starting pack at hooker, Jarrad McLeod returns at inside centre, with Brumbies team-mate Kadin Pritchard coming into the side after impressing for Gungahlin Eagles.

But Lado Kilasonia’s Georgia will be no pushovers. They drew a two-match warm-up series against England earlier this month and will want to use that as a springboard to beating their best-ever eighth-place finish in South Africa last year.

Fly-half Luka Tsirekidze already has a senior international cap, at the age of 19, while out wide, Lyon flyer Luka Khorbaladze will be a player Australia will want to keep a close eye on.

Ireland v Italy – kick-off 16:30

Two-time runners-up Ireland are relying on management evolution to lead them to a first title, a year after finishing second to France in South Africa last year. Willie Faloon has stepped up to the top job, after being in charge of defence last year and for the past two U20 Six Nations. 

He’s aided and abetted by an experienced and well-bedded team in Ian Keatley (attack) and Aaron Dundon (forwards), while Neil Doak adds a wealth of additional coaching nous as a senior coach, after a spell with the U18s.

Munster’s Evan O’Connell will captain the team as they open their Pool B campaign against familiar U20 Six Nations rivals Italy at the DHL Stadium, while the former coach’s son Jack gets a chance to show what he can do at 10.

Italy, too, are under newly promoted coaching management – former assistant coach Roberto Santamaria has succeeded Zebre-bound Massimo Brunello, and will want to build on his side’s fourth-place finish in this year’s U20 Six Nations that included a 23-20 win over France in Béziers, and an agonising one-point defeat against Ireland in Cork. 

South Africa v Fiji – kick-off 19:00

Captain and prop Zachary Porthen is one of five South African players taking part in their second Word Rugby U20 Championship, having been a member of the squad that finished third in Cape Town last year.

The Junior Springboks will be confident of improving on last year’s result, after a second-place finish at May’s inaugural U20 Rugby Championship in Australia, where they proved their mettle in defeat against the hosts, playing for an hour at a numerical disadvantage.

Coach Bafana Nhleko has named three uncapped players in the 23 for the opening match – hooker Luca Bakkes, fly-half Liam Koen and – on the bench – back Likhona Finca. But the rest were involved in the recent competition in Australia.

Their Pool C opponents at DHL Stadium, Fiji, have a new head coach guiding them in Cape Town. Apisai Sailada has taken overall charge after being part of the coaching team for last year’s edition. He’ll be looking for a big improvement on last year’s 10th-place finish, especially after leading his talented squad to the first-ever Oceania Rugby U20 Challenge title in March. 

Wales v New Zealand – kick-off 19:00

Weeks after winning the inaugural Rugby Championship U20 tournament in Australia, Jono Gibbes’ New Zealand set out on their quest to reclaim the World Rugby U20 Championship crown they last won in 2017.

They will open their Pool A account at Athlone Sports Stadium this year against familiar opposition, having played Wales in Paarl in the pool stage 12 months ago – winning 37-26, to record their eighth win in 10 meetings between the two sides.

They’ll face a side with some inside knowledge. Wales’ new head coach – Englishman Richard Whiffin, who appointed in December 2023 to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Mark Jones to the Ospreys – was previously attack coach for Super Rugby side Highlanders.

A fifth-place finish in the U20 Six Nations included wins over Scotland and Italy, a noticeable improvement following a winless 2023 tournament. Whiffin will want to build on that by finishing higher than last year’s sixth place.

Watch the World Rugby U20 Championship live and for free on RugbyPass TV from 29 June.