TOKYO, 18 Sep – The World Rugby U20 Championship and Trophy tournaments are proven pathways to the test arena with almost 1,200 players having made the step up since age-grade rugby was restructured in 2008.
Among them is two-time Rugby World Cup winner Samuel Whitelock of New Zealand, the most successful of all U20 graduates who last year became the first to reach the milestone of 100 tests, against Australia in the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Sydney.
Australia’s Will Genia would join him by the end of the year, playing his 100th test against England at Twickenham, and the select club could swell to four during Rugby World Cup 2019 with Wallabies captain Michael Hooper and team-mate Rob Simmons boasting 95 and 98 caps respectively.
Whitelock, Genia and Simmons are two of 17 graduates for whom Japan 2019 is their third Rugby World Cup tournament, others include Argentina’s record point-scorer Nicolás Sánchez, Georgia fly-half Lasha Khmaladze – the only U20 Trophy graduate in this group – and Japan captain Michael Leitch.
Leitch, who led the Brave Blossoms to their stunning victory over South Africa at RWC 2015, is one of eight U20 graduates named as captain in Japan – the others being Pablo Matera (Argentina), Hooper (Australia), Tyler Ardron (Canada), Owen Farrell (England), Stuart McInally (Scotland), Siya Kolisi (South Africa) and Juan Manuel Gaminara (Uruguay).
In total there are 218 U20 Championship graduates and 83 U20 Trophy graduates selected in the squads for Japan 2019, plus three players who will join the ranks if they make their test debuts in Australia’s Jordan Petaia, Namibia’s Janry du Toit and Uruguay’s Joaquin Juansolo.
The 301 tally is 63 per cent more than played at England 2015 (137 Championship and 55 Trophy) and a significant increase on the 59 (50 Championship and nine Trophy) who were named in squads for New Zealand 2011, including eventual winners Whitelock, Aaron Cruden and Zac Guildford.
A further nine players were part of New Zealand’s historic victory at RWC 2015 in Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Waisake Naholo, TJ Perenara, Brodie Retallick, Julian Savea, Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor.
Seven of the All Blacks’ graduates from that success are in Japan bidding for glory once again, with Barrett – a try-scorer in the final (pictured) – joined this time by younger brothers and fellow U20 Championship graduates Scott and Jordie among a contingent of 22 (one Trophy) in the 31-man squad.
Only two nations boast more U20 Championship graduates in their RWC 2019 squads, England with 22 and Argentina with 24 – Los Pumas having capped more players from this pathway than any other nation (69).
It is Uruguay, though, who have brought the highest number of graduates in total with 28 players – and Juansolo – having stepped up to test rugby from Los Teritos over the last 11 years out of the 70 (Championship and Trophy) players they have capped.
Four of those played in Uruguay’s sole appearance at the U20 Championship in 2009 – played in four cities across Japan – in the inspirational Gaminara, Los Teros’ most-capped player Diego Magno, Juan Diego Ormaechea and Gaston Mieres.
In total, 43 players who were involved in that 2009 tournament are back in Japan, including Tongan quartet Ma’afu Fia, Latu Talakai, Daniel Faleafa and Nafi Tuitavake who were part of the New Zealand squad that successfully defended the title they had won in Wales the year before.
The most recent winners of an U20 Championship title are France prop Demba Bamba and fly-half Romain Ntamack, who helped Les Bleuets lift the trophy for the first time on home soil last year, while Otari Giorgadze, Beka Gorgadze, Giorgi Kveseladze and Giorgi Melikidze all helped Georgia win the U20 Trophy in 2015.
There are also two players who played in the U20 Championship as recently as June, with Tedo Abzhandadze having captained Georgia to 10th place in Argentina in a squad also featuring hooker Vano Karkadze, the youngest player at RWC 2019 aged only 19 years and 86 days.
Their selection by Georgia means that this year’s U20 Trophy is the only tournament not represented by an U20 graduate at RWC 2019, although two players who represented Kenya in Brazil in July have already made the step up to test rugby during the recent Victoria Cup competition in Africa.