U20 Championship: Springboard to Rugby World Cup glory

Following South Africa’s victory at Rugby World Cup 2019, 28 World Rugby U20 Championship graduates have now lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.

Siya Kolisi created history as he hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup through a downpour of gold ticker tape at International Stadium Yokohama last November.

South Africa’s first black captain is also the only player of colour to lead a team to Rugby World Cup glory. In doing so, he became the first World Rugby U20 Championship graduate to achieve that feat as well.

Three Rugby World Cups have been staged since the inaugural World Rugby U20 Championship was held in Wales 12 years ago.

In that time, 28 players have appeared at the annual age-grade tournament and gone on to Rugby World Cup success. The majority of those represented South Africa in Japan last year.

Of the 33 players called up by Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus before and during RWC 2019, 16 had donned the famous green jersey at a World Rugby U20 Championship. Nine of those were selected in the 23-man squad for the 32-12 final victory over England.

Back-row Pieter-Steph du Toit, fly-half Handré Pollard and replacement prop Steven Kitshoff, meanwhile, added their names to the list of 15 players who have won both global tournaments. 

All three players had started at Newlands on 22 June, 2012, when the Junior Springboks beat New Zealand 22-16 to secure U20 Championship glory on home soil. 

Pollard, only a few months past his 18th birthday, kicked 12 points during that match and would have an even bigger influence on the RWC 2019 final, converting both his side’s tries and contributing six penalties to keep England at arm’s length.

Du Toit’s performances in Japan, meanwhile, would propel him to being named World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2019 a day after victory in Yokohama.

All Black graduates

RWC 2011 was the first to be held in the U20 Championship era, as Aaron Cruden, Zac Guildford and Sam Whitelock became the first graduates to win the Webb Ellis Cup.

Cruden, who notched 19 points in the U20 Championship 2009 final defeat of England, and Whitelock, who scored one try in New Zealand’s victorious 2008 campaign, both started the final. Guildford scored 10 tries as New Zealand emerged victorious in both 2008 and 2009, and crossed the whitewash four times in his sole RWC 2011 appearance, against Canada.

Whitelock would travel to England for RWC 2015 alongside another U20 Championship 2008 graduate, Aaron Smith. The pair were joined by a further eight players who had represented New Zealand in their triumphant U20 Championship 2010 and 2011 campaigns.

Brodie Retallick lined up alongside Whitelock in the All Blacks’ second-row in the RWC 2015 final against Australia, while Smith started at scrum-half and Julian Savea wore the number 11 jersey. Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane and Tawera Kerr-Barlow would all be introduced in the second half. 

Barrett put the gloss on a 34-17 victory at Twickenham with New Zealand’s third try of the match. He is one of only four U20 Championship graduates — and the sole U20C winner — to have touched down in a Rugby World Cup final, alongside Australia’s David Pocock and Tevita Kuridrani, and Springbok Cheslin Kolbe.

In 2018, double RWC-winner Whitelock became the first U20 Championship graduate, and youngest All Black, to play 100 tests when he faced Australia in the Rugby Championship at ANZ Stadium. 

“He’s been an outstanding contributor to the team for a long time, both on and off the field,” former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said at the time. 

“To play one test for the All Blacks is an achievement in itself, but to be good enough to be selected and play 100 tests is a remarkable feat. In doing so he will join what is a small group of very special All Blacks.”

Whitelock subsequently won his 100th test in only his 115th All Blacks match at RWC 2019 when he captained New Zealand to a 71-9 defeat of Namibia. Victory was his 17th in a row at Rugby World Cups, another record.

“I had no idea but that’s pretty awesome… pretty humbling,” the second-row said afterwards.

READ MORE: World Rugby U20 Championship — the story so far