The 2015 World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy may now be consigned to the history books but the reputations created by some of the tournament’s stars could light up rugby for years to come.
Here’s a look at some of the players from the tournament who, though too late to make an impact at the Rugby World Cup, could well be amongst the superstars of the game by 2019 in Japan.
Akira Ioane, New Zealand
A regular for the Blues in Super Rugby this season, Ioane was an irrepressible force at the Championship, helping New Zealand to their first title since 2011.
With a mother who is a former Black Fern and a father, Eddie, who was a former Samoa lock his pedigree is unquestioned and his imposing 6ft 5in, 18st frame made it look man against boys at times during the tournament. Only England managed to keep him relatively under wraps, but even they saw him cross the try line once, going over for the crucial score that would see New Zealand lift the trophy.
Having just turned 20 years of age, Ioane will have his eyes firmly set on pushing Kieran Read for a 2019 RWC place where he could well play a starring role for New Zealand. If the All Blacks are beset by rash of injuries, don’t rule out his late inclusion in this year’s tournament.
As well-stocked as New Zealand are in the back row, Ioane’s performances at the Championship and in Super Rugby this season will have been duly noted in the All Blacks’ camp.
Sekou Macalou, France
It was a frustrating tournament for the Stade Français-bound flanker, as injury curtailed his campaign 10 minutes into France’s semi-final with New Zealand, but a strong case can be made that he was the premier talent on show in Italy.
A rangy flanker who is as impressive without the ball as he is with it, Macalou is the centrepiece of a crop of French youngsters who could quickly become a part of Guy Novès’ rebuilding job with Les Bleus.
Macalou was in imperious form against Wales in the opening round of the tournament, leading the defensive line and dominating the breakdown against promising Welsh openside Ollie Griffiths, whilst his athletic ability and powerful frame made him a constant threat with ball in hand.
With Thierry Dusautoir and Yannick Nyanga both nearing the ends of their international careers, the timing could be perfect for Macalou to make an impact with France after the Rugby World Cup.
Paul Hill, England
Put simply, Hill may well be the best tighthead prop to grace the U20 international stage. Admittedly, the U20 category has only been around since 2008, but that shouldn’t diminish from Hill’s obvious talent.
A powerful ball-carrier and destructive at the breakdown, the 6ft 2in, 18st Hill is a thoroughly modern prop, but most importantly, he scrummages with excellent technique and dominated opponents this summer.
Hill ups sticks this summer, leaving Yorkshire Carnegie for Northampton Saints, where he will come under the tutelage of Dorian West. The former England U19 and U21 coach will relish working with someone of Hill’s potential and though props often don’t mature as quickly as other positions, there’s no reason why Hill can’t push for playing time with Northampton this season.
Hill’s all-round package could see him fast-tracked into the England set-up after the RWC.
Thomas du Toit, South Africa
A dominant loosehead at last year’s tournament, du Toit has coped well with the conversion to tighthead this year.
The youngster, who has already accrued a significant amount of Super Rugby experience with the Sharks, bettered the looseheads of Italy, Samoa, Australia and France with ease, and although he came unstuck against Ellis Genge of England, the early signs are promising.
The Sharks are losing both their starting and backup tightheads this year, with Jannie du Plessis and Matt Stevens both heading for the Top 14, creating a considerable void in their front row.
If du Toit can lockdown the Sharks’ three jersey next season, the Springbok one could follow quickly, such is the skill du Toit has already shown in the scrum, not to mention the dearth of tighthead options South Africa currently have at their disposal.
Owen Watkin, Wales
A member of the Ospreys U18 squad, Watkin was fast-tracked into the Welsh U20s set-up this season and has repaid the faith shown in him.
At 6ft 2in and weighing in at just shy of 16 stone, Watkin – at just 18 years of age – was one of the most physical backs at the Championship. There are obvious similarities between Watkin and the current Welsh midfield of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
Watkin will still be 18 when the new Guinness Pro 12 season begins, but he already looks ready for the physical nature of senior rugby and could be ready to make the most of any opportunities the RWC creates in the Ospreys’ backline.
There’s an abundance of talented players Watkin will need to usurp in the Welsh midfield before the 2019 RWC, but he definitely has the potential to challenge the status quo.