With 707 players to have graduated from the World Rugby U20 Championship to the test stage, World Rugby commentator Simon Ward was spoilt for choice when we asked him to name his personal all-star graduate team.
A commentator at age-grade international rugby’s premier event for five of the last six tournaments, Ward has understandably lent more towards players of a more recent vintage when whittling down his selection. But he also feels that reflects how the standing of the tournament has grown year-on-year, not only in its profile but also the quality of rugby on display.
Resisting the temptation to go for obvious choices like current England half-backs, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell and loose-head prop, Mako Vunipola, Ward has also based his selection criteria on those players who personally excited him while either behind the mic or watching from afar.
A bit like the Barbarians, Ward was given special dispensation to include two uncapped players in his line-up, and he opted for New Zealand duo, Tevita Li and Asafo Aumua, who both seem destined for big things in the not-too-distant future.
Brodie Retallick, from the outstanding class of 2011, is the most-capped player with 81, while fellow All Black Aaron Cruden is the only other half-centurion to make the cut.
Six-time winners New Zealand and reigning double champions France have the highest representation of any country in Ward’s XV, with four players apiece.
SIMON WARD’S U20 CHAMPIONSHIP GRADUATE XV
15. Bautista Delguy, Argentina (2016-17), 14 caps
Such a balanced runner, he reminds me of someone like Richard Haughton (former England Sevens winger) with the way he effortlessly glides over the ground. Will Jordan and Cai Evans are two others to have caught the eye and I wouldn’t be surprised if a first cap isn’t far away.
14. Tevita Li, New Zealand (2014-15), 0 caps
I know he hasn’t made the step up yet, but when someone scores a record 13 tries across two tournaments (2014-15) it is difficult to ignore them. The complete winger, he reminded me of Rupeni Caucaunibuca with his power and balance.
13. Joe Marchant, England (2016), 3 caps
Gave England a cutting edge throughout their triumphant campaign in 2016. One of the two tries he scored in the final at the AJ Bell Stadium really sticks in the memory. Jan Serfontein, the prototype South African centre, would have got in but he’s yet to make the step up.
12. Romain Ntamack, France (2017-18), 16 caps
Such a key cog in France’s first title success when the pressure was really on them on home soil. He oozes class, as you’d expect as the son of former Les Bleus legend Emile Ntamack. I’m opting for him at 12 because he is equally at home there as he is at fly-half, where there are so many alternative options.
11. Damian Penaud, France (2015-16), 17 caps
Another one with such good rugby genes who, despite playing at centre in the U20s, has developed into a world-class test wing. He certainly knows the way to the try line and has perhaps taken the family name to a new level and will continue to do so in the future.
10. Aaron Cruden, New Zealand (2009), 50 caps
I’m spoilt for choice here as I could easily have opted for Handré Pollard or George Ford, but I’m going to roll back the years to 2009 and go for Aaron Cruden, who was named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year in the same year. He had everything: the footballing skills, basketball skills and game management.
#U20Week | Flashback to 2017 @WorldRugby U20 Championship in #Georgia— Georgian Rugby Union (@GeorgianRugby) April 2, 2020
And to finish off yet another Rugby Less day check out this fantastic try by Gela Aprasidze that just got a bit short from becoming @WorldRugby try of the year 2017
9. Gela Aprasidze, Georgia (2016-18), 25 caps
At a time when there was a popular misconception that all Georgians, from one to 15, had played prop, he proved there was far more to their game. Showed he was one for the future with an outstanding try against Ireland in his home tournament, and I was lucky enough to be watching it. Arthur Coville, France’s captain when they won in 2018, would have been under consideration had he been capped.
1. Rhys Carre, Wales (2017-18), 8 caps
Huge power but also possesses the dynamic running and handling skills that the modern young prop is expected to have. Impressive in both tournaments he played in and earned a move to Saracens on the back of his performances in Georgia and France, as well as a senior Wales call-up.
2. Asafo Aumua, New Zealand (2017), 0 caps
Again, I’m going to have to bend the eligibility rules. While not capped, Aumua did play for the All Blacks against the Barbarians in 2017 and I’m confident that he’ll go on to have a long international career. He produced moments of electric brilliance in Georgia. There was one dash down the wing against France in the semi-final and you thought, ‘woah, who’s that winger?’, only to discover it was actually the hooker. He then scored a hat-trick against England in the final.
3. Demba Bamba, France (2018), 11 caps
Similar to Rhys Carre in that he has an all-court game. Has huge power and a fair old rumble of pace for such a big man. In front of his own fans, particularly in the semi-final in Perpignan against New Zealand, he really stood up, as he did again in the final.
4. Maro Itoje, England (2014), 41 caps (including 3 three for the British and Irish Lions)
As a character, he led from the front in the rugby hotbed that is New Zealand. From a young age, he brought something different to second-row play, not only with his athleticism but also his capacity to steal the ball in contact with his ‘octopus-like’ arms. So focused.
5. Brodie Retallick, New Zealand (2011), 81 caps
A key member of the New Zealand U20 team in 2011, widely regarded as the best the country has ever had at that level. The All Blacks capped him the following year and, two years later, he was named World Rugby Player of the Year. Enough said!
6. Marcos Kremer, Argentina (2016-17), 28 caps
A teak-tough, man-mountain who can play in both the second row and back row. Was immense in his two tournament appearances, giving his side go-forward whenever he got the ball. Even as an U20s player, he looked like he’d been playing test match rugby for years, and he is consistently showing that class now he has graduated to Pumas colours.
7. Cameron Woki, France (2017-18), 2 caps
If ever there was a dull moment in the tournament in France, and there weren’t many admittedly, Woki would ignite the crowd with a moment of magic. His athleticism under the high ball is outstanding. Luke Braid and Ben Curry would have come into consideration had they been capped.
8. Max Deegan, Ireland (2016), 1 cap
Deegan’s phenomenal work-rate was one of the main reasons Ireland reached their first and only appearance in a U20 Championship final in 2016. Not the flashiest of players, but scored three important tries in five appearances in Manchester, including one against New Zealand. There is no question he is going to be a big Irish international for many years to come. Jordan Joseph and Juarno Augustus are the ones to miss out but they are rockstar rugby players who will no doubt grace the international stage, too.
*U20 Championship tournament appearances in brackets