In 50 days’ time, the 12th edition of the World Rugby U20 Championship kicks off in Argentina with players from the 12 participating teams eager to show that they have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of 655 players who have gone on to play test rugby after playing in the premier age-grade tournament since it was first held in 2008.
Argentina, preparing to host the U20 Championship for the second time after Rosario, Parana and Santa Fe welcomed the future stars of world rugby in 2010, fittingly have capped more graduates than any other country with 67, many of whom are now key figures for Los Pumas as Rugby World Cup 2019 approaches.
Among this contingent are new captain Pablo Matera, Los Pumas’ record point-scorer Nicolás Sánchez, scrum-halves Tomás Cubelli and Martín Landajo, forwards Javier Ortega Desio, Matías Alemanno and Julian Montoya – all of whom have more than 50 caps – and newer faces like Emiliano Boffelli and Bautista Delguy.
France are next best with 59, including two members of their first U20 Championship-winning side of last year in prop Demba Bamba and fly-half Romain Ntamack, with Scotland (52), Wales (50), Ireland, Australia (both 49), South Africa (47), Italy (46), New Zealand (45) and England (44) completing the top 10 nations in graduate numbers.
In total, 25 countries have capped a player who has come through the U20 Championship pathway, although only 18 of these have actually played in a tournament, the others – from the Bahamas to Zimbabwe – having capped a player who represented a different nation at age-grade level.
These graduates have accumulated more than 11,000 test caps between them and scored almost 1,500 tries on the global stage since Samoa’s Alatasi Tupou became the first to make that step back on 3 September, 2008 with his debut against New Zealand.
A decade later, the first two graduates to reach 100 tests were celebrated in New Zealand second-row Sam Whitelock – himself a two-time Rugby World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015 – last August and Australia scrum-half Will Genia last November.
More could join them in the centurion club by the end of 2019, potentially during the first Rugby World Cup in Asia where it is anticipated that half of the 600 players could be U20 Championship graduates, an increase on the quarter at England 2015 and 49 at RWC 2011 in New Zealand.
A number of teams at RWC 2019 are set to be captained by U20 graduates, including hosts Japan with their talisman Michael Leitch, Australia with Michael Hooper, South Africa with Siya Kolisi, Argentina with Matera, Samoa with Chris Vui and Owen Farrell for England.
Twelve U20 Championship graduates already have already lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, 10 from the All Blacks’ success in 2015 and two others from their triumph on home soil four years earlier. How many will get their hands on the coveted trophy in Japan?
Graduates have also won Rugby Championship and Six Nations titles – including 21 players in Wales’ Grand Slam-winning campaign of 2019 – as well as British and Irish Lions series, Olympic medals and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles.
Two graduates have also been named World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year, both New Zealanders in Brodie Retallick in 2014 and Beauden Barrett in 2016 and 2017, the latter one of only three players to win the award more than twice, placing him in the same club as All Blacks legends Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter.
These are certainly tough acts to follow, but there are certain to be players in the class of 2019 who put their hands up with impressive displays and mark themselves out as players to watch in the months and years to come.