The world's best youngsters have descended on France for the Junior World Championship, and one can expect a familiar tale to unravel.
The world's best rugby-playing youngsters have descended on France for the Junior World Championship, and one can expect a familiar tale to unravel.
In the tournament's five-year history, only two teams have lifted the title, with New Zealand winning the first four editions before South Africa came out on top on home soil last year. A further two teams (England and Australia) have made it to the final in years gone by, and one imagines it will once again be Junior All Blacks and Baby Boks that hit the front in 2013.
Pool A: South Africa, France, England, USA
South Africa have been dealt two heavy blows in the build-up to the competition, with Jan Serfontein's success at Super Rugby level seeing the centre called up to the senior Bok side and Kings winger Sergeal Petersen ruled out by injury. Despite this, the Baby Boks look a competent outfit, if not as well rounded as the previous vintage.
France's Christopher Tolofua is one young gun who has already claimed higher honours, with the Toulouse hooker having turned out for France in two Tests last year. Together with strong-running winger Teddy Thomas, who enjoyed a sparkling debut Top 14 season, Tolofua will be one of those coach Didier RetiÃ¨re will be counting on to help get the hosts out of a tough pool. With will sorely miss the presence of Toulouse centre Gael Fickou, who is with the senior French squad in New Zealand.
Eight members of the England team that finished a dismal seventh in the 2012 event once again get a shot at the JWC title, including skipper Jack Clifford. It surely can't get any worse for England this year, but should they lose their opening fixture to the hosts it could just do so. London Irish winger Anthony Watson is one to look out for out wide, with the 19-year-old a very dangerous runner.
The United States haven't turned out at the tournament since 2008 when they were relegated to the Junior World Trophy where they were promoted from last year. The Young All Americans are definitely an unknown quantity but are sure to possess some raw talent that could see them put up a strong performance or two. Whether that can be sustained over 80 minutes appears unlikely.
Pool B: Australia, Fiji, Ireland, New Zealand
New Zealand have assembled a strong squad, with two players with Super Rugby experience in skipper Ardie Savea and centre Jason Emery, and 12 who turned out in last year's ITM Cup. It's this kind of experience that could prove crucial as while many teams posses a star of the future or two, few have as many top-level performers across the park.
Last year's Australia squad included now Super Rugby regulars Kyle Godwin, Chris Feauai-Sautia and of course Liam Gill. Nick Frisby was also involved so the hope will be that they can produce similar prospects in the tournament. It is a tough Pool though for coach Adrian Thompson, whose side's games will be played at Stade de la Rabine, Vannes.
Ireland head into the competition on the back of a mixed bag of results in the U20 Six Nations in which they beat England courtesy of a late Tom Daly penalty but were held to a 25-all draw by Italy and lost to Wales. Mike Ruddock will be looking for more consistency from his team in France and they'll need it in a tricky group. Daly's partnership in the midfield with Rory Scannell will be a key area for the Irish.
The name that immediately jumps off the Fiji teamsheet is that of Marika Vunibaka. No, the Sevens star hasn't been given a free pass into the competition, but rather his nephew comes into the limelight with the hope of carrying on the family tradition.
Pool C: Argentina, Samoa, Scotland, Wales
Having lost just once in the U20 Six Nations earlier in the year, Wales skipper Ellis Jenkins will be hoping his troops can muster the same kind of performances that saw them beat all but England, with an added ruthless edge that at times was missing. Jenkins himself is one to keep an eye on in France, with the back rower following closely in the footsteps of Lions captain and Cardiff colleague Sam Warbuton in more ways than one. Having made the semi-finals last time out, Wales will feel they have a decent chance of topping Pool C.
The 2012 JWC was somewhat of a wonder year for Argentina, finishing fourth after topping their pool. It will be tough for Los Pumitas' to repeat the feat. However, they are boosted by the fact that playmaker Patricio FernÃ¡ndez, a star of the show last time out, will once again be around to pull the strings – as will six other members of the class of 2012 – and the knowledge that they beat the defending champions, South Africa, in warm-up matches earlier this year.
The young Scots seem set for a poor time of it despite being in what on the face of it appears to be the easiest pool. With just two wins in the U20 Six Nations (albeit one was the surprise scalp of Ireland) and not a single victory in last year's JWC, it's going to take something special for Sean Lineen's men to go deep in the competition. Having topped the scoring charts last year, Jamie Farndale will be one of those needed to provide spark and after nine months on the sidelines due to a fractured leg, Farndale will certainly be looking to return with a bang.
Samoa finished winless in South Africa last year and first and foremost their aim will surely to be to get a victory under their belt and avoid returning to the IRB Junior World Trophy where they spent 2011. The versatile Fomai Ah Ki will be hoping his experience from the past campaign will aid his side going forward.
More than 200 players have made the jump from the Junior World Championship to the Test arena and IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset admits he's excited to get a glimpse at what the future has to offer.
“Talking to the captains this afternoon, you get a sense of just how exciting this year's tournament is going to be. There are some mouth-watering matches in store and personally I can't wait to see France take on England in “Le Crunch” at La Roche-sur-Yon on Wednesday,” he commented.
“These players have an excellent opportunity at this tournament, and it's up to them to grasp it with both hands. The scene is set, the preparations are in place and now it's just all down the players to give it their best.”
Wednesday, June 5:
Wales v Samoa (18:00 local, 16:00 GMT)
France v England (18:45 local, 16:45 GMT)
Ireland v Australia (18:45 local, 16:45 GMT)
Argentina v Scotland (20:00 local, 18:00 GMT)
New Zealand v Fiji (20:45 local, 18:45 GMT)
South Africa v USA (20:45 local, 18:45 GMT)
Sunday, June 9:
Argentina v Samoa (15:00 local, 13:00 GMT)
South Africa v England (16:45 local, 14:45 GMT)
Wales v Scotland (17:00 local, 15:00 GMT)
France v USA (18:45 local, 16:45 GMT)
Ireland v Fiji (18:45 local, 16:45 GMT)<