Six key tournaments were staged in 2018 as part of World Rugby's commitment to closing the gap between tier one and tier two nations and further developing the pathway from age-grade to senior international rugby.
We pick out the highlights from each, starting with the World Rugby Pacific Challenge in Suva, Fiji.
WORLD RUGBY PACIFIC CHALLENGE 2018
Full results can be found here>>
WINNERS: Fiji Warriors
WHEN: 9-17 March
WHERE: Suva, Fiji
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Fiji Warriors 2. Junior Japan 3. Samoa A 4. Tonga A
LEADING POINTS-SCORER: Serupepeli Vularika (Fiji Warriors), 29
LEADING TRY-SCORER: Tevita Tatafu (Junior Japan), 5
WARRIORS DOMINATE: Fiji Warriors lifted the Pacific Challenge trophy for the third year in a row, and have now won eight titles in the competition’s 11-year history. Having rounded off their campaign with a convincing 57-7 victory over Tonga A, the Warriors extended their winning run in the Pacific Challenge to 10 matches.
PROP IDOL: Fijian flair was evident across the park throughout the tournament, even in the front row where 130kg prop Luke Tangi was a standout performer. Tangi, under 20 years of age at the time of the tournament, scored a try and set up another during the Warriors’ game against Junior Japan, displaying an impressive set of ball skills for such a big man.
TT RACES IN: Junior Japan have Tevita Tatafu to thank for consecutive runners-up finishes. The number eight, capped three times by the Brave Blossoms in 2016, was joint top try-scorer with four tries in 2017 but this year he was out on his own at the top of the charts with five, including a hat-trick in a 45-28 win over Tonga A.
CHANCE TO SHINE: Thirty of the best-performing U23 players from the Pacific nations went on to take part in the ground-breaking ‘World Rugby Combine’ – a dedicated education and preparation camp in Suva, aimed at preparing the next generation of test stars for professional rugby.
WORLD RUGBY U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2018
Full results can be foundhere>>
WHEN: 30 May-17 June
WHERE: Perpignan, Béziers, Narbonne (France)
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. France 2. England 3. South Africa 4. New Zealand 5. Australia 6. Argentina 7. Wales 8. Italy 9. Georgia 10. Scotland 11. Ireland 12. Japan
LEADING POINTS-SCORER: Louis Carbonel (France), 60
LEADING TRY-SCORERS: Giovanni D'Onofrio (Italy) and Wandisile Simelane (South Africa), 6
GOLDEN GENERATION: Billed as the ‘golden generation’, France’s supremely talented crop of players lived up to the hype and expectation by winning their first title in style in front of their adoring fans. With Romain Ntamack pulling the strings in the backs and dynamic back-row duo Cameron Woki and 17-year-old Jordan Joseph at their destructive best, Les Bleuets recovered from a slow start against Ireland to sweep all before them, including victories over defending champions New Zealand and three-time winners England in the semi-final and final respectively.
HISTORIC HIGH FOR JUNIOR LELOS: After a first win over Ireland at the end of the pool stages and an impressive comeback against Japan in the ninth-place semi-final, Georgia beat Scotland 39-31 on the final day to record a tournament-best finish of ninth.
IRELAND LEAVE IT LATE: Finalists only two years before, Ireland left it until the dying stages to confirm their place among international rugby’s age-group elite. Defeats to France, South Africa, Georgia and Scotland forced the Irish into the 11th place play-off with Japan and an upset was on the cards until Tommy O'Brien struck three minutes from time to condemn the Japanese to relegation to the U20 Trophy in 2019.
THE BEST YET? With packed and partisan crowds, an array of brilliant individual and team performances and record-breaking broadcast and digital media figures, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont acclaimed the 2018 edition of the U20 Championship as “the best yet”. Nearly 100,000 fans attended the five match days with 15,360 seeing France lift the trophy on a memorable night in Béziers. A peak of 1.31 million fans watched the final on French broadcaster France 4, while the championship proved popular with 41.5 million video views online.
PATHWAY TO THE TOP: The tournament continues to be a rich breeding ground for future stars with six of the participating players going on to be capped before the year was out, including France’s Demba Bamba. Overall, 641 players have now graduated from the U20 Championship to the test arena.
WORLD RUGBY NATIONS CUP 2018
Full results can be found here>>
WHEN: 2-10 June
WHERE: Las Piedras and Montevideo, Uruguay
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Uruguay 2. Argentina XV 3. Emerging Italy 4. Fiji Warriors
LEADING POINTS-SCORER: Felipe Berchesi (Uruguay), 41
LEADING TRY-SCORER: Asaeli Atunaisa (Fiji Warriors) and Andres Vilaseca (Uruguay), 3
BACK-TO-BACK: Uruguay followed up their win in 2017 with another title on home soil, although ongoing redevelopment work at the Estadio Charrúa led to the competition being played at the Carrasco Polo Club in Montevideo and the Estadio Parque Artigas Club Atlético Juventud in Las Piedras.
FORM TEAM: Uruguay’s second consecutive title win came as no surprise given Los Teros’ form going into the tournament. Before losing to USA in the Americas Rugby Championship in March, they had strung together a 14-test winning run, including home and away RWC 2019 qualifier wins over Canada.
SWEET REVENGE: In beating their River Plate rivals 26-20 in the title decider, Uruguay gained revenge for their hugely disappointing 64-15 loss to Argentina XV six months earlier in the Americas Rugby Championship.
FAMILIAR FACE: Argentinian fly-half Joaquín Díaz Bonilla competed in his fourth Nations Cup after first playing at this tournament in 2013, for the Jaguars, and then for the Argentina XV in 2016, 2017 and 2018. He is a long way short of Florin Vlaicu and Catalin Fercu in terms of tournament appearances, though. The Romanian pair have played in a record nine Nations Cups.
RECORD-BREAKERS: Argentina XV’s tally of 16 tries smashed the team record for tries in a single tournament, previously held by Romania with 11.
WORLD RUGBY PACIFIC NATIONS CUP 2018
Full results can be found here >>
WHEN: 9-16 June
WHERE: Suva, Fiji
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Fiji 2. Tonga 3. Georgia 4. Samoa
LEADING POINTS-SCORER: Soso Matiashvili (Georgia), 21
LEADING TRY-SCORER: Henry Seniloli (Fiji), 3
FOUR-MIDABLE: Fiji wrapped up their fifth Pacific Nations Cup title and fourth in a row after wins over Samoa and then Georgia. In scoring 61 points across the two games, Fiji passed through the 1,000-point milestone for the competition.
WORLD CUP WARM-UP: Fiji struck an early psychological blow ahead of their Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool D meeting with Georgia with a convincing 37-15 win against the Lelos. Georgia were left in no doubt as to the threat Fiji will pose in Japan, especially at scrum-half where Henry Seniloli, the starting nine, and his replacement Frank Lomani scored a brace of tries apiece. The defeat also brought Georgia’s seven-game winning run in all competitions to an end.
DREAM START: Tonga winger Viliame Lolohea made a dream start to his international career, scoring only six minutes into his test debut as the ‘Ikale Tahi overcame Samoa 28-18 despite finishing the game with 13 men. Tonga lost three men to the sin-bin in total in an ill-disciplined final quarter, but they had the luxury of a 22-point cushion and Samoa were left with too much to do. The win ensured Tonga finished in second place with Samoa propping up the table.
WORLD RUGBY U20 TROPHY 2018
Full results can be found here>>
WHEN: 28 August-9 September
WHERE: Bucharest, Romania
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Fiji 2. Samoa 3. Portugal 4. Namibia 5. Uruguay 6. Hong Kong 7. Canada 8. Romania
LEADING POINTS-SCORER: Denzo Bruwer (Namibia), 59
LEADING TRY-SCORER: Manuel Ardao (Uruguay), 6
ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK: An incredible 1,164 points and 166 tries were scored across 16 matches, at an average of 72.75 points and 10.4 tries respectively. The last round alone produced 349 points and 54 tries as attack dominated defence.
BACK ON THE BIG STAGE: Having lifted the U20 Trophy for the first time, Fiji gain promotion to the World Rugby U20 Championship next year where they will compete with the elite of international age grade rugby in Argentina. Fiji haven’t played at that level since 2014.
ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END: Prior to their 58-8 defeat to Fiji in the final, Samoa had won every single game they had played in the U20 Trophy. The 2011 and 2016 champions had hoped for an immediate return to the U20 Championship but, in the face of determined defending and some scintillating attacking play, they were no match for their Pacific rivals.
RECORD-BREAKERS: The history books were re-written in Bucharest with a number of countries breaking new ground. Fiji’s winning margin of 50 was easily the highest recorded in a Trophy final, while Uruguay and Canada both racked up record competition scores in emphatic final-round victories against Hong Kong (78-17) and Romania (71-14) respectively. In finishing sixth, Hong Kong enjoyed their best-ever standing at the U20 Trophy.
WORLD RUGBY AMERICAS PACIFIC CHALLENGE 2018
WINNERS: Samoa A
WHEN: 6-14 October
WHERE: Montevideo, Uruguay
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Samoa A 2. Argentina XV 3. Uruguay A 4. Tonga A 5. Canada A 6. USA Select XV
LEADING POINTS-SCORERS: Federico Favaro (Uruguay A), Saia Fililava (Tonga A) and D’Angelo Leuila (Samoa A), 35
LEADING TRY-SCORERS: Santiago Arata (Uruguay A), Irwin Finau (Tonga A), Kainoa Lloyd (Canada A), Ryan Matyas (USA Select XV) and Johnny Vaili (Samoa A), 5
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Samoa A’s 36-31 first round victory over Argentina XV ended the defending champions’ unbeaten record in the tournament and also proved crucial in the final standings, the Pacific Islanders finishing two points clear at the top after both teams won their next two games.
POSITIVE END FOR CANADA A
Kainoa Lloyd’s hat-trick helped Canada A edge Tonga A 32-31 in the final round. The narrow win meant they avoid finishing bottom of the table for the second year running – that ‘honour’ fell to the USA Select XV – and gave Canadian rugby a timely boost heading into the RWC 2019 repechage tournament.
While try-scoring and point-scoring were both down on 2017 despite the installation of an artificial pitch at the Estadio Charrúa that encouraged high-tempo rugby, the competitiveness of the tournament increased with the average winning margin almost halved to 16 points.