The JWC is Rugby’s premier age-grade tournament, a yearly gathering of the best U20 players in the world. The tournament works on a pool system with teams then going into a series of play-offs which ensure that every team will have five games. This year, it will run over three weeks in South Africa. The tournament has become an important part of players’ development and often throws up some of the best rugby in the calendar as highly talented players strut their stuff in a far less regimented environment than normal.
That, at least, is the theory. In practice, we are missing a number of the best available players this year due to either injury or moving onto higher things. A good example is England (hereafter referred to as the Baby Orcs) who are missing Matt Kvesic, Elliot Daly and George Ford – arguably the three best players in the side, and all stars of last year’s tournament. Kvesic is injured. Daly is recovering from being overplayed by Wasps due to being vital to their relegation battle, all with a knee injury that stopped him from training. Ford has been left behind to undergo an extensive conditioning course during pre-season and all the hints are that if he’d travelled, it would have been with the full squad and not the U20 squad. As Leicester motormouth said, this may be Ford’s last summer off for a long time. Nor are the English absentees the only ones. Amongst Ford’s fly-half colleagues, Heineken Cup finalist Paddy Jackson has likewise been left alone for a full pre-season – assuming Kidney doesn’t carry out his threat of taking him to New Zealand in the event of injury – while South Africa’s star fly-half Johann Goosen is missing out through injury. George North, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, French hooker Christopher Tolofua and New Zealand’s precocious openside Sam Cane have been reserved for this purpose, while Cane’s compatriot Perenara has been left out to fulfil S15 duties. That just begins to scratch the surface. As players hit the big time younger and younger, the list of players injured and reserved for more important business seems set to grow. Indeed, some countries (Ireland in particular) have complained about the tournament’s timing, claiming it mucks up with getting proper pre-seasons for their players. Despite all this, there will still be a very high standard, and I still intend to watch as much possible.
Games start today with a full fixture list available here – http://www.irb.com/jwc/fixturesresults/index.html. Group A will see champions New Zealand pitted against Wales as well as Samoa and Fiji. Group B places England, Ireland and Italy alongside hosts South Africa. Group C contains Scotland, Australia, France and Argentina. The three pool winners plus the best runner up will go into the play-offs for 1st place. The three pool losers plus the worst third placed team will go into the play-off for 9th place, with 12th place being relegated to the JWT. All the other teams go into the highly exciting play-off for 5th place. Right now, all of the home nations are in the JWC, although their prospects differ wildly.
Wales did poorly in the U20 Six Nations, but the squad is so different from then as to render all comparisons practically irrelevant. The Welsh might be scenting the possibility of a place in the 1st place playoffs here as for all their physicality, bonus point wins against Samoa and Tonga are possible, which might be enough given the competitiveness of the other groups. Wales will probably need to avoid any repeat of last year’s ninety-odd point gaping at the hands of New Zealand for that to happen. That will probably require the full strength XV however, which all of a sudden compromises the possibility of victory against Samoa and Tonga. In all probability however, Wales will find themselves in the 5th place play-off again.
Players to watch for
Forward – Dan Thomas looks like another instalment from a conveyor belt of opensides. When Wales
were getting beat up in the 6N, the Scarlets player constantly looked the goods.
Back – The magical Matthew Morgan. Providing he overcomes his midgetness enough to present a respectable speed bump in defence at international level, he has all the skills to be the next great Welsh running 10, and has already shown a tremendous level of assurance and skill for the Ospreys.
Scotland had a poor Six Nations and things aren’t going to get any better now despite a backline with plenty of talent on paper. Scotland’s problems all lie up front, where their pack looks uninspiring and short of its best players, such as Gray junior. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and be a total pessimist and say I can see Scotland playing to survive in this competition, as they’re certainly finishing nowhere but bottom in their group. Well, unless Argentina are very bad I suppose.
Forward – Robin Hislop. Supposedly. This is totally a borrowed recommendation, as they’ve all looked pretty subpar to me, but Hislop has managed some gametime with Edinburgh this season, which isn’t bad for a young prop. Is still probably going to get beat up though.
Back – Mark Bennett. Injuries have curtailed Bennett’s progress recently, which is a shame as he was starting to make inroads into the Clermont team at the start of the season.
Ireland have been consistently good at 6N level and consistently outgunned come the JWC in recent years and in truth I don’t see any other likely outcome this year. Ireland weren’t able to match England’s clinical edge in the spring and won’t stand against the Boks at home. This leaves Ireland staring squarely at the mid-place play-offs, where they’ll hope to do better than last year. It’s a shame, as this is a talented Irish team much bolstered by the return of star tighthead Tadgh Furlong
Forward – Iain Henderson. Repeatedly Ireland’s stand-out player in the U20 6Ns where he seemed ubiquitous and able to make ground seemingly at will, Henderson confirmed his potential with a solid outing and blistering try at Thomond Park in Ulster’s last league game of the season.
Back – Luke McGrath. The inability of the Irish to produce top level scrum-halves has been an ongoing issue, but to say they’re getting excited about Luke McGrath is a gross understatement. His basics may be ropey at times, but he has all the skills, and the most valuable trait of all in top level decision making.
The standard has been set high, and anything less than a final appearance is failure. Yet this is one of the weaker England squads to go out, and they will need to come home with silverware to be judged a success. To do so, they first need to go through the Baby Boks at home, and then in all probability New Zealand and either Australia or France. It’s a hard route, albeit one England teams have travelled before. England have traditionally been one of the strongest teams at this level due to superior fitness and athleticism, allied to a high level of technical ability. The speed is still there, but with a very young pack and a backline on the small side, it’s questionable whether they have the power to dominate collisions against the best sides. A loss to South Africa wouldn’t be the end of the world, as you’d back them to have the attacking power to be in for best runner up, but if they can’t match South Africa, then the omens don’t look good
Forward – Kyle Sinckler. What is it with Harlequins and tight five forwards at the moment? Despite being a year young, Sinckler carried like the extra-large size version of Steffon Armitage that he resembles, and his scrummaging seemed to show technique as well as power, although I’m not the best judge. Nevertheless, likely to be England’s battering ram of choice
Back – Marland Yarde. This could have been any of a half-dozen players, but I eventually went with the London Irish flier. Yarde has some serious pace, is probably the most powerful of England’s likely starting backline and has shown a fair rugby brain so far for England. Although with Addison, Elliot and Walker, he mightn’t even start!
Five others to look out for
1: Liam Gill, Australia – Statistically the best poacher in the Super 15 at present. Yes, there are some questions about the stats and what they consider turnovers, but statistically he’s currently better than Pocock, McCaw, Brussow and a number of others.
2: Steven Kitshoff, South Africa – Kitshoff has been playing week-in, week-out for the Stormers, to the point that their coach has been complaining loudly about his inclusion in the U20s. Enormous and ginger, the loosehead prop will be easy to keep an eye out for.
3. Sebastien Taofifenua, France – Speaking of massive and easy to spot, Taofifenua is the biggest man at the tournament, and will be playing tighthead prop in between bouts of baby eating.
4. Gael Fickou, France – Continuing the Gallic theme, I don’t know much about Fickou save that he’s already playing for Toulon at the age of 18. I’m taking that as a fairly heavy hint that he’s got something about him.
5. Scott Eade, New Zealand – It’s a fairly low key selection for the Baby Blacks, but fly-half Eade’s racked up some ITM cup time for Southland and frankly, when isn’t it worth keeping an eye out for a NZ fly-half anyway? Eade should have the armchair ride of his life at this tournament.