The captains of host nation France, defending champions New Zealand, Oceania rivals Australia and newly-promoted Japan came together on Saturday in Perpignan, where the Pool A teams will be based for the opening rounds of the premier age-grade tournament.
A day later the other eight captains joined forces under stormy skies at the 14th-century Le Castillet in the city for the official captains' photo ahead of the 11th edition of the tournament which takes place in the French cities of Perpignan, Narbonne and Béziers from 30 May-17 June.
While New Zealand will be bidding to win back-to-back titles and their seventh in total, there are a host of potential contenders hoping to lift the coveted trophy in what is expected to be the most competitive tournament to date.
England, for one, will be hoping to use their record 64-17 defeat to New Zealand in the final last year as a motivation to go one better in France.
“Obviously getting so close to winning something like that, especially with the history of England in this tournament and the expectation on us, meant that really hurt us, so we are definitely hoping to go one step further this year,” said captain and flanker Ben Curry, who toured Argentina last June with the senior England team.
South Africa, too, will accept nothing less than victory, and a second U20 Championship title.
“I was in Georgia last year and it didn’t go the way we wanted, but hopefully we can learn from the mistakes we made, keep errors to a minimum and perform to the best of our ability,” said towering second-row and captain Salmaan Moerat, a bronze medallist in 2017.
The team to beat
New Zealand, though, remain the team everyone has to beat. Tom Christie was part of last year’s triumphant group and takes over the captain’s armband from his room-mate in Georgia, Luke Jacobson.
“Last year I think we got a lot right from a team point of view, so this year we are looking to repeat that but also create our own legacy as well. It’s always an honour to be a captain of a team, and when it involves the black jersey it just takes it to another level of honour and excitement. I am really looking forward to what this tournament is going to bring from both an individual point of view and for the team as well.”
Australia are bullish about their chances having enjoyed an extended period of time together in the build-up.
Captain and scrum-half Ryan Lonergan is delighted to be in France after missing last year’s tournament through injury and expects his Junior Wallabies side to go well despite having New Zealand, who recently beat them in the Oceania Rugby U20 Championship, in the same pool.
“It’s been disappointing the last couple of years, we’ve had good teams and played good footy in patches but have switched off at critical times. I think the preparation this year has let us bond together as a group much better and we have something special in us.”
Hosts France have never reached the final before, falling at the semi-final stage on no less than three previous occasions. However, they come into the tournament as reigning U20 Six Nations champions with a group labelled as ‘the golden generation.’
“We have known each other for four-and-a-half years now, since U16s. We are a very tight team, very homogeneous," said captain Arthur Coville. "The 28 players selected from the extended squad of 40 are very good and very fit. We can rely on the team spirit that links all of us.”
Scotland go into the tournament boosted by last year’s best-ever finish of fifth and a memorable U20 Six Nations win against England which captain Stafford McDowall admits “gave us a lot of confidence for us. It’s mainly the same group of players here that was playing in the Six Nations but with a few boys coming back from long-term injuries as well.”
His Ireland counterpart Caelan Doris is relishing the opportunity of playing in a tournament that is a renowned proving ground for the future stars of world rugby with more than 570 players having graduated from the tournament to play test rugby.
“It’s one of the ideal stepping stones to senior rugby and the professional game. It is definitely a key tournament and one we’re really looking forward to,” he said.
Japan, meanwhile, make their return to the U20 Championship after winning the sister U20 Trophy last year and captain Hisanobu Okayama knows it gives him and his team-mates the chance to catch the eye ahead of a home Rugby World Cup in 2019.
“Last year the Japan team did really well in winning the Trophy and we are thankful to them for giving us this chance to come to the Championship,” said Okayama.
“We want to play great rugby this year and there are some really strong players. It is definitely possible that some of them will go on to play for the Japan senior team and play at the World Cup.”