World Rugby U20 Championship: The story so far
With the World Rugby U20 Championship finally returning in 2023 after a four-year absence, we take a stroll down memory lane to look back at the 12 previous editions of the influential men's age-grade competition.
In the 15 years of its existence, the World Rugby U20 Championship has played an integral part in the player development pathway as well as being a brilliant tournament in its own right.
Countless stars of the future have been unearthed and many of those will be on display when Rugby World Cup 2023 kicks off next year.
France are two-time defending champions and plenty of the triumphant 2018 and 2019 squads have gone on to establish themselves as lynchpins of all the all-conquering Les Bleus team in a very short space of time.
And before them, Rugby World Cup winners such as All Blacks forward Sam Whitelock and Springboks fly-half Handre Pollard used age grade international rugby’s premier event as a stepping stone to the top.
To highlight its role in the player development pathway, no less than 707 players have experienced playing at the U20 Championship and then gone on to be capped by their countries.
Traditionally New Zealand have been the dominant force in the competition, capturing the title a record six times with England the next-best on three, however the trophy remains in France’s possession for now following a thrilling 24-23 victory over Oceania U20 champions Australia when the tournament was last staged in Argentina in 2019.
The men's World Rugby U20 Championship and U20 Trophy are both making a welcome return to the calendar next year 🙌— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) February 22, 2022
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2008
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 38-3 England
Top points scorer: Francois Brummer (RSA) – 67
Top try scorer: Ratu Nasiganyavi (AUS) – 7 (Now known as Nemani Nadolo, FIJ)
New Zealand were in a class of their own at the inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship, where their brand of free-flowing rugby saw them win every match by at least 25 points. Three-quarters of the squad in Wales had helped New Zealand dominate the U19 Championship a year earlier and the new tournament – which replaced the U19 and U21 events – saw more of the same with 242 points and 34 tries scored and only 28 points and one try conceded.
Labelled “a special group” by co-coach Russel Hilton-Jones, New Zealand overwhelmed England 38-3 in the final at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea with Kade Poki, Jackson Willison, Andre Taylor and Ryan Crotty their try-scorers.
South Africa finished third after a 43-18 win over a Wales side captained by Sam Warburton, while USA were relegated to the second tier U20 Trophy in 2009 after losing the 16th place play-off to Japan 44-8.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2009
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 44-28 England
Top points scorer: Tom Homer (ENG) – 68
Top try scorer: Zac Guildford (NZL) – 8
With only one of New Zealand’s 2008 team returning in Zac Guildford, it was Australia who arrived in Japan as favourites given the Super Rugby players in their ranks such as Kurtley Beale. Australia backed that up in the pool stages with three dominant displays, while New Zealand failed to find that 80-minute performance.
The rivals met in the semi-finals but, contrary to expectations, it was New Zealand who finally delivered with captain Aaron Cruden pulling the strings in a 31-17 victory. England emerged victorious, 40-21, in the other semi-final against a South African side that had scored 43 unanswered points in their Pool C decider with France to recover from 20-0 down after 30 minutes.
On finals day in Tokyo heavy rain fell until just before the title decider, but while England were more competitive than 12 months earlier, they never recovered from a two-try blitz from the inspirational Cruden, and New Zealand defended their crown with a seven-try 44-28 win.
South Africa finished third again after coping better with the wet conditions than Australia. With the tournament being cut from 16 to 12 teams for 2010, the teams who finished bottom of their pools were relegated in Canada, Japan, Italy and debutants Uruguay.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2010
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 62-17 Australia
Top points scorer: Tyler Bleyendaal (NZL) – 82
Top try scorer: Julian Savea (NZL) – 8
The 2010 edition certainly left its mark on the Littoral region of Argentina with thousands of fans attending matches across the venues in Rosario, Santa Fe and Paraná and creating atmospheres to savour. They were treated to some thrilling matches and tension, particularly when the hosts needed a kicking competition to beat Wales after the sides had drawn 19-19 on day four.
Australia reached a first final after back-to-back wins over South Africa and England, but the title decider proved a match too far as New Zealand produced what coach Dave Rennie labelled “pretty close” to the perfect performance. Captain Tyler Bleyendaal pulled the strings, scoring 28 points in their seven-try, 62-17 victory, with winger Telusa Veainu scoring a hat-trick.
South Africa finished third again after beating England 27-22, while Samoa were condemned to relegation to the U20 Trophy – to be replaced by 2010 winners Italy – after losing the 11th place-play-off 23-3 to Tonga.
Earlier in the tournament, Ireland captain Rhys Ruddock had been called away to join up with the senior squad in Australia as injury cover and his subsequent test debut meant that all 17 nations to grace the U20 Championship had capped a graduate.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2011
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 33-22 England
Top points scorer: Gareth Anscombe (NZL) – 86
Top try scorer: Arno Botha (RSA) / Christian Wade (ENG) – 7
New Zealand and England met for the third time in an U20 Championship final and while the result was the same, this was the closest the champions had come to losing a title decider.
Six Nations Grand Slam winners England dominated the early exchanges in Padova but couldn’t turn it into points on the scoreboard. New Zealand, by contrast, made the most of their opportunities and the flawless kicking of Gareth Anscombe ultimately proved the difference in a 33-22 victory – their 20th in a row.
Australia had avenged their Pool B decider loss to France to finish third, while Fiji still managed to achieve their best-ever finish of sixth despite losing 104-17 to South Africa.
Hosts Italy also had cause to celebrate on the final day when they beat Tonga 34-22 in the 11th place play-off to retain their place in the top tier, while condemning the Pacific Islanders to relegation to the U20 Trophy in 2012.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2012
Host: South Africa
Winner: South Africa
Runner-up: New Zealand
Final result: South Africa 22-16 New Zealand
Top points scorer: Tom Prydie (WAL) – 61
Top try scorer: Jamie Farndale (SCO) – 6
New Zealand and South Africa both made it through to the final despite each losing a pool match, to Wales and Ireland respectively. It was New Zealand’s first-ever loss in the competition.
It was the dream final, between the four-time defending champions and hosts, and the 35,000 crowd packed into Newlands Stadium ensured it was played in a cauldron of noise.
Two second-half tries, one by centre Jan Serfontein, gave South Africa the breathing space to survive the final 10 minutes when New Zealand threw all they had at their hosts, the Junior Springboks winning 22-16.
South Africa had ended New Zealand’s vice-like grip on the trophy, but it had also been a breakthrough tournament for Argentina who finished fourth after defeat to Wales on the final day.
England could only finish a disappointing seventh, while Fiji had to dig deep to survive a fight-back by Italy to win the relegation battle 19-17 and condemn the Italians to the U20 Trophy in 2013.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2013
Final result: England 23-15 Wales
Top points scorer: Patricio Fernandez (ARG) – 82
Top try scorer: Seabelo Senatla (RSA) – 7
The first final to feature two northern hemisphere teams turned out to be the proverbial game of two halves.
Touches of brilliance from Welsh fly-half Sam Davies saw his side lead 15-3 at half-time in Vannes, but once Jack Nowell scored just before the hour mark the momentum swung England’s way and the 23-15 win meant they finally got their hands on the trophy after three previous final defeats.
England, who only made the last four as the best runner-up after losing to South Africa, had beaten New Zealand for the first time at age grade level in the semi-finals, while Davies was Wales’ hero against the Junior Springboks, setting up a try in the final minute and then nailing the touchline conversion for the 18-17 win.
South Africa won an 11-try thriller with New Zealand to finish third, while Fiji proved too strong for USA in the 11th place play-off, winning 46-12 to condemn the Junior All-Americans to an immediate return to the U20 Trophy.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2014
Host: New Zealand
Runner-up: South Africa
Final result: England 21-20 South Africa
Top points scorer: Patricio Fernandez (ARG) – 73
Top try scorer: Andrew Kellaway (AUS) –10
England and South Africa produced a pulsating encounter at Eden Park, one that edged one way then the other. Jesse Kriel scored twice for South Africa, but England’s defence held firm, surviving a drop goal attempt from the impressive Handré Pollard, to win 21-20 and retain their title.
Hosts New Zealand had twice been beaten by South Africa, but finished on a high after four second-half tries against a gutsy Irish side were enough to secure third place.
Winger Andrew Kellaway set a new record for tries in a single Championship (10) with his brace as Australia fought back to beat France 34-27 in the battle for fifth place.
Meanwhile, Fiji were relegated to the U20 Trophy in 2015 after losing the 11th place play-off to Italy 22-17.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2015
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 21-16 England
Top points scorer: Brandon Thomson (RSA) – 59
Top try scorer: Tevita Li (NZL) – 6
New Zealand returned to Italy, the scene of their last triumph in 2011, to deliver a long-awaited fifth title with a 21-16 victory over England. Akira Ioane was the second-half matchwinner in Cremona.
South Africa overcame France to finish third, while Scotland and Japan, on their return to the U20 Championship, recorded their highest finishes of eighth and 10th.
Italy clung onto their Championship status after a tense 20-19 win over Samoa in the relegation decider.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2016
Final result: England 45-21 Ireland
Top points scorer: Harry Mallinder (ENG) – 68
Top try scorer: Ataata Moeakiola (JPN) – 6
England became only the second host nation to lift the trophy after a tournament in Manchester that produced plenty of surprises along the way.
Ireland became the first Irish men’s team in history to beat New Zealand on their way to topping Pool A and eventually a place in their first ever final. England were too strong on the day, however, with captain Harry Mallinder in unstoppable form.
Argentina also upset the form book in beating South Africa not once but twice – including 49-19 on the final day – to record their best finish of third.
Georgia finished 10th on their debut, giving Wales and France real scares along the way.
Italy condemned Japan to the U20 Trophy after a 41-17 win in the relegation play-off.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2017
Winner: New Zealand
Final result: New Zealand 64-17 England
Top points scorer: Tiaan Falcon (NZL) – 69
Top try scorer: Juarno Augustus (RSA) – 7
New Zealand ripped up the U20 Championship record books in claiming a sixth title with their 64-17 victory over defending champions England.
In addition to the biggest winning margin in a final, the Junior All Blacks scored the most tries and most points.
The tournament in Georgia produced plenty of surprises along the way with the first draw in the competition's history, between France and South Africa on day one, as well as the highest-ever finish for both Scotland (fifth) and Italy (eighth).
Argentina beat Samoa 53-42 in a high-scoring relegation encounter.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2018
Final result: France 33-25 England
Top points scorer: Louis Carbonel (FRA) – 60
Top try scorer: Giovanni D'Onofrio (ITA), Wandisile Simelane (RSA) – 6
France overturned their Six Nations loss to England at a sold-out Stade de la Méditerranée in Béziers to become the fourth nation to add their name to the U20 Championship trophy.
England outscored France three tries to two in the final but a 23-point contribution from the boot of Louis Carbonel, through seven penalties and a conversion, ensured it was Les Bleuets who came out on top, 33-25, to the delight of their passionate home support.
England had claimed a thrilling one-point win over South Africa in the first semi-final with France dethroning defending champions New Zealand in the other, but there would be no stopping a team regarded as France's “golden generation” in the title decider.
The tournament in France saw Italy match their best-ever finish of eighth from the previous year with Georgia showing their continued development by beating Ireland, Japan and Scotland to finish ninth.
Ireland found themselves in the relegation play-off against Japan, and needed a last-gasp try to triumph 39-33 and avoid dropping into the U20 Trophy in 2019.
U20 CHAMPIONSHIP 2019
Final result: France 24-23 Australia
Top points scorer: Josh Hodge (ENG) – 63
Top try scorer: Ewan Ashman (SCO) – 7
It was another triumphant year for France as they overcame Australia 24-23 in arguably the most entertaining final in the competition’s history.
France joined New Zealand (2008-11) and England (2013-14) in successfully defending the coveted title after denying Australia a first title in the same Argentinean city where they were humbled 62-17 by New Zealand in the 2010 final.
Given Australia had recently been crowned Oceania U20 champions, this was never going to be such a one-sided affair and the second final to be decided by a single point – after England's 21-20 defeat of South Africa at Eden Park in 2014 – will live long in the memory.
France and Australia produced 80 minutes of pulsating rugby that kept fans on the edge of their seats as it swung one way and then the other.
In fact, the lead changed hands no fewer than seven times before France fly-half Louis Carbonel kicked what proved to be the winning penalty with 15 minutes to go at the Racecourse Stadium in Rosario.
Elsewhere, past reputations counted for nothing in 2019 with England struggling to impose themselves and New Zealand losing to both South Africa and Wales to finish in their lowest-ever position of seventh.
There was also disappointment for Argentina, who had topped Pool A after a comprehensive victory over France, only to fall to defeat to Australia in the semi-finals and then lose out on the bronze medal to South Africa.