The world's best up-and-coming rugby players are in New Zealand preparing for the seventh edition of the Junior World Championship.
The world's best up-and-coming rugby players are in New Zealand ready for the seventh edition of the Junior World Championship.
Twelve countries have been divided into three pools for 30 matches which will be played at three venues in and around Auckland. The three venues are: Eden Park, North Harbour Stadium and the Pukekohe Stadium. The tournament kicks off on June 2 at the Pukekohe Stadium and the final will be played at Eden Park on June 20.
The previous six tournaments were won by three countries. New Zealand won the first four tournaments between 2008 and 2011, before South Africa triumphed on home soil in 2012, and England became the first northern hemisphere side to lift the trophy after beating Wales in last year's final in France.
Pool A: Argentina, Australia, England, Italy
As the tournament's defending champions England are the favourites to top this pool. Skipper Callum Braley is one of seven players who were part of last last year's victorious squad in France. Amongst them is centre Harry Sloan, who has represented Harlequins at senior level in the LV= Cup. Another player with LV= Cup experience is Gloucester fly-half Billy Burns, who is the younger brother of senior England pivot Freddie Burns. Also keep an eye on Gus Jones, who is making his first appearance at the Junior World Championship. The London Wasps flanker is a self-confessed admirer of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, so expect him to make life difficult for his opponents at the breakdowns.
Argentina were the surprise package at the 2012 tournament in South Africa, where they finished fourth, and followed that up with a sixth place finish in France last year. Argentina have seen the most players graduate from the Junior World Championship to the Test arena with 48, six of them earlier this month in the CONSUR Cup against Uruguay. Like all Argentine sides they pride themselves on their forward play and big things is expected of back row TomÃ¡s Lezana. He showed his potential with Los Pumitas at last year's tournament in France. A hard tackler and fearless in defence, Lezana is also a superb ball carrier who Argentina will rely on to get them over the gain-line.
Australia will be keen to do well after a disappointing display in France last year, where they finished seventh. Their Junior World Championship graduates have accumulated more Test caps than any other nation to date with 439 ahead of the June internationals. Included in their ranks are Luke Burton, Tom Staniforth and captain Sean McMahon, who have Super Rugby experience with the Western Force, Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels respectively. Back-row McMahon is vital to their cause and is considered one of the brightest prospects in Australia. This will be his second Junior World Championship, having played in the 2012 edition in South Africa and missed last year's due to selection for Australia's RWC Sevens squad in Moscow.
Italy are the minnows of the group and return to the Junior World Championship after scoring six tries in beating Canada 45-23 to win the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2013 in Chile. They are coached by Alessandro Troncon who played more than 100 Tests for Italy. Fly-half Filippo Buscema is one of a handful of players in the 2014 squad who were involved in Italy's impressive campaign at the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy last year. A calming influence at number 10, Buscema's experiences from that tournament and the Six Nations campaign will be vital to the Azzurrini's aspirations at JWC 2014.
Pool B: Fiji, France, Ireland, Wales
Wales finished as runners-up to England last year and will be amongst the tournament's favourites as they have 10 players in their 28-man squad who played at last year's tournament. Included in their squad is wing Hallam Amos who has represented Wales at Test level but another player of whom big things are expected is Ospreys flyer Ashley Evans. He was one of the stars of the 2013 tournament and scored two tries in their defeat to England in the final. A mainstay of the Wales U20 squad in 2013, he returned from a spell with Wales on the Sevens World Series during the Six Nations and his pace and experience will be vital to hopes of success in New Zealand.
After finishing outside of the semi-final berths on their home soil in 2013 France will be keen to improve on that effort this year. They will be brimming with confidence after impressing during their Grand Slam performance in the U20 Six Nations earlier this year. Toulouse flanker Yacouba Camara is their star player. It would not have been a surprise had he been across the Tasman in Australia with the senior French team, such has been the impression he has made in his first season in the Top 14. A striking presence on the pitch, Camara was one of France's best players during last year's event.
Ireland coach Mike Ruddock has picked a physically larger pack after finishing eighth last year. Strong carrying number eight Jack O'Donoghue has taken on the role of captain for this tournament after fellow forward Sean O'Brien was ruled out through injury. Man of the match in Ireland's win over Scotland in the Six Nations after a two-try haul, this will be his second Junior World Championship.
Fiji finished 11th at last year's tournament and are expected to battle again this year. The last two tournaments have seen Fiji needing to win on the final day to avoid relegation to the Junior World Rugby Trophy, which they did against Italy and USA. Their key player is Adrea Cocagi, an inside centre who has benefited from his time with Top 14 club Stade FranÃ§ais and will bring invaluable experience to the Fijian side from his two years in France. A strong runner, he is also a dependable player in defence.
Pool C: New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa
Playing at home, there will be huge pressure on New Zealand to win the tournament. They've played in five of the six previous finals and head into this year's event as favourites. They beat the Chiefs' Development XV in a warm-up game last week which will boost their confidence ahead of their opening match against Samoa. Captain Simon Hickey and hooker Hame Faiva are the only men who took part in last year's competition. Hickey has come on in leaps and bounds since then and is joined in the squad by by Tevita Li, who is his team-mate at Super Rugby level for the Blues.
After finishing third and fourth, the hosts and traditional rivals South Africa are in the same pool. Fly-half HandrÃ© Pollard (Bulls), centre AndrÃ© Esterhuizen (Sharks), wing Sergeal Petersen (Kings) and hooker Malcolm Marx (Lions) have all played at Super Rugby level. Like Hickey, Pollard captain's the Baby Boks from fly-half and this will be the third tournament he participates in after appearances during the Baby Boks' triumphant 2012 campaign and in France in 2012.