Except for a brief break last August we seem locked into a never ending season which has been trundling along for the best part of two years, so it takes something a bit special to get the pulse racing again at present.
The first Test between South Africa and England certainly ticked that box one way or another and the first half of Ireland’s game against the Wallabies was shuddering in its intensity – but the best rugby I’ve watched in a long while has been the Junior World Cup set in those three historic rugby hotbeds of Perpignan, Narbonne and Beziers.
No surprise that. The Junior World Cup invariably produces some of the best rugby of any season. And the U21 World Cup before that. The tournament is a glorious launching pad for the world’s best players before they become over-coached, over played and overly professional and world weary.
The 2011 tournament in Italy is normally held up as the benchmark in terms of quality with the freakily
talented New Zealand and England teams – who between them have so far seen 25 of those involved earn full Test honours – contesting a memorable final. Elsewhere on these pages we look in more detail at those involved.
But actually this year trumps 2011 in overall quality. I will confidently predict that across the board – taking in all 12 teams on display – more star names will emerge from the class of 2018 than any previous Junior World Cup.
Hosts France have been sensational and get used to the names of Cameron Woki, Demba Bamba, Jordan Joseph, Louis Carbonel, Arthur Colville, Romain Ntamack and Lucas Tauzin because they will be making headlines for the next ten years or more. All should be in their pomp for RWC2023 which is being hosted by France.
France’s attacking display in the first half of their pool game against South Africa was the best rugby I’ve watched this year, closely followed by their command performance up front, and granite defence, against New Zealand in the semi-final. Like the great French senior teams of old they can play it every which way. England will have to go some this afternoon in Beziers to down them in the final.
But not only France and the traditional powers – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England – have been firing on all four, just about every nation has had its moment.
Today’s festivities start with the 11th-12 place play-off between Ireland and Japan – the loser is relegated – yet Ireland could have beaten France and Japan probably should have beaten Wales and Georgia. Both sides possess very high-quality players and would have prospered in other, weaker, years.
Meanwhile the Italians and Georgia have been giving as good as they get. Italy chalked up wins over
Scotland and Argentina – the latter probably their best ever performance in this competition – in their pool while Georgia could easily have beaten South Africa, ran the talented French close and have claimed wins over Scotland and Japan.
Recent Italy U20 graduates have included Matteo Minozzi, Seb Negri and Jake Polledri and they continue to unearth excellent prospects in the back row. Openside flanker Michele Lamaro has enjoyed a fine tournament and Italy have fielded two No.8s to reckon with, the rock solid Ludovici Manni and the explosive Antoine Koffi. Giovanni D’Onofario, meanwhile, is the silkiest of wings with an enviable try scoring habit and would be a shoe-in for my tournament XV.
Georgia also now take U20 rugby very seriously. We already knew about scrum-half Gela Aprasidze, who also starred in last year’s tournament and has again been exceptional, but he has been joined by two other very promising backs in outside centre Savido Svanidze and full-back Beka Mamukashvili.
How Georgia could do with some of these young backs kicking on when they start playing senior rugby. The absolute star of the show for Georgia, however, has been their athletic and canny No.8 Tonike Jalagonia.
After taking numerous beatings in earlier years Georgia and Italy have both come to the conclusion that the Junior World Cup must be the focus of their entire development programme.
All the time they can avoid finishing last – which results in relegation to the Trophy competition – the likes of Italy and Georgia are guaranteed a priceless place at rugby’s top table every year. They cannot be excluded like they are from the Six Nations or some European club competitions or indeed the senior World Cup should they ever fail to qualify. Secure that place and every year they can concentrate on preparing the next year group for the ultimate test, which builds its own momentum.
Both nations now throw huge resources into their U20 teams. Italy are able to compete in the U20 Six Nations and have started to claim some notable wins in that competition while Georgia have struck up a strong friendship with South Africa and Argentina, where they have taken to staging long tours and training camps ahead of the JWC every year.
With the Lelos there is the added bonus that their top players will automatically get talent spotted at the JWC where the agents abound and many of their best players get offered contracts with professional clubs in the T14 and Pro D2 in France.
Italy so far have tended to resist that with many of their players already registered to the Italian Academy, but, with just the two full-time professional franchises and limited opportunities domestically, one wonders if young Italian players might not also start looking over the border again. France was their proving ground back in the 90s when Italian rugby came to prominence.
The Junior World Cup became established ten years ago in 2008 after the IRB sensibly decided that running an U19 and U21 World Cup every year wasn’t quite ticking all the boxes. The older age group in particular presented a confused picture with many of those eligible well established full time professionals with clubs and in some cases already senior internationals.
Splitting the difference and staging just the one annual competition made sound sense and in truth it’s been a success right from the start. Not that there aren’t some work-ons, no competition is perfect.
The three pool format has always felt a little awkward and random and with, just the three pool winners and the best loser going on, is heavily dependant on which pool you get drawn in. Some years some pools are undoubtedly stronger than others and the added complication with all age group rugby is that the sides that do the qualifying one year can be very different in terms of strength and ability to the side that competes the following year.
Four pools would seem more logical and the addition of a quarter-final would expand the playing schedule to six matches but already the schedule makes huge demands on teenage players. The feeling remains that another round would be a game too far and also unduly favour the big nations with more strength in depth.
Some of the reffing is very good but some leaves a bit to be desired but as World Rugby rightly point out the JWC is a showcase – and testing ground – for developing refs as much as the players. Where this manifests itself most prominently is in the way foul play is not pounced on as quickly as it should, as anybody who witnessed New Zealand’s ill disciplined and overly physical display against Wales in a pool match this time round will testify.
I’m afraid the Kiwis also stand accused of having rather cynically used the Samoan and Tongan U20 teams in past years to bolster their own U20 squads. Throughout the competition’s existence it’s become a regular experience to watch a promising Samoan or Tongan appear one year for one of the Pacific islands and return the following summer with New Zealand.
In the modern world it is entirely legal to switch from one U20 nation and play for another at senior level – unless you are Spanish of course when it will result in your expulsion from the RWC2019! – but switching from one country to another at the same age group level should be outlawed even if the player involved is a dual national, as is often the case.
For New Zealand to talent spot Tongans and Samoans in this way – who in some cases have attended their New Zealand trials and been discarded – is manifestly having three bites of the cherry. Using Tonga and Samoa U20 sides as development teams for your own U20 squad simply isn’t appropriate and must stop.
As with Georgia and Italy this competition should be the cornerstone of the development of the Pacific Island Test teams. It’s already difficult enough for them financially – and this surely is where World Rugby money could be better and more directly used – but frankly the Islands might think what is the point given that it is probably the last they will see of many of their better prospects.
This year in France there has been no Pacific Islands team competing and that should be a huge concern for World Rugby given that their stats suggest that nearly 20 per cent of all professional rugby players worldwide are of Pacific Island origin. In August Fiji and Samoa are competing in the Trophy competition in Romania but alas Tonga don’t appear to be fielding an U20 side of any description.
But those caveats apart, the Junior World Cup is a shining beacon in the rugby calendar. The rugby has often been stunning, the setting perfect despite some unusually iffy weather and the local French fans appreciative of all the sides. It’s been a joy to watch and today’s final between France and England should offer up one final treat.
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