Australia under-20s coach Adrian Thompson believes the newly-formed Oceania Rugby Junior Championship will play an invaluable role in the southern hemisphere’s bid to hold sway again at this international level.
The four-team, round-robin tournament, played between 1-9 May, will provide the leading teams in the region an opportunity to finalise preparations for the World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy in June in a highly competitive environment where national pride is also at stake.
The northern hemisphere nations enjoy such a platform through the annual RBS U20 6 Nations competition, and Thompson says the Australian Rugby Union recognised the need for something similar after seeing England win the last two tournaments.
“They (the northern hemisphere) have made leaps and bounds over the last few years compared to Australia and New Zealand and hopefully this Oceania tournament is the first step towards counteracting that,” Thompson said.
“The home nations have their Six Nations tournament and we’ve had nothing in the past so at least it’ll give us some preparation going into the World Rugby U20 Championship which is good.
“For us it is about performance and finalising selection and hopefully getting some good results along the way.
“We obviously want to do well in the competition because it is the first of its kind and we’re playing at home, but first and foremost it is just important that we’re actually getting some games together.
“The ARU were the driving force to make this happen and we’re delighted it is happening. We’re hoping to continue with it and expand it over the next few years,” he added.
With Thompson finalising his squad for the World Rugby U20 Championship squad on the back of performances on the Gold Coast, competition for places is sure to be intense.
“Back row is really competitive and there’s a couple of positions that we haven’t decided upon yet.I reckon there are half a dozen (places) up for grabs because we haven’t seen a lot of the boys this year,” he said.
“In Michael Gunn, who is contracted to the Queensland Reds, and Brad Wilkin, who is contracted to Australian Sevens, we have a couple of genuine sevens who are going to be really important for us and who I think have big futures.
“We’ve also got a couple of guys who probably cover all three positions in the back row, which is great for this sort of tournament because you need that flexibility around selection when you’re playing three matches in eight days.
“There is a fair bit of competition across most of the positions in the back line, too,” Thompson continued.
“In saying that, there are a few guys injured at the moment and while we have strength in depth it is probably getting to the stage where we could do without any more players being sidelined.”
Samoa dress rehearsal
Australia open their Oceania campaign with a hit-out against Samoa, who they will meet again in Pool B at the World Rugby U20 Championship. They will then they take on Japan – who won the World Rugby U20 Trophy last year to return to the elite tier for the first time since 2009 – before concluding with an eagerly-awaited finale against New Zealand.
“We didn’t get to play them (New Zealand) at the World Championships last year so it will be a good opportunity for both us and the Kiwis to see where we’re at. It’s on a Saturday and there should be a sizeable crowd. Australia-New Zealand games are always good fun.”
As well as Samoa, who they defeated 56-15 in last year’s fifth place semi-finals, Australia have been drawn with host nation Italy and South Africa as they bid to reach the knockout stages of the World Rugby U20 Championship for the first time since 2011.
“Samoa, regardless of what happens in the next couple of weeks, are always competitive, with Italy being the home nation they'll be tough to beat and South Africa were runners-up last year.
“The order of games is good from our perspective because we get to play South Africa last. Hopefully we’ll have built up some momentum by then if we work hard and get through the first two matches.
“Last year we won four out of five matches and we’d have got through to the semis had we taken a bonus point from our only defeat against England.
“It’s a real aim of ours to get through to the top four as we haven’t done that for a few years. Once you get there anything can happen.”
The Oceania Rugby Junior Championship 2015 will be streamed live on www.rugby.com.au.