Manchester will be the centre of the age-grade Universe next week as the best players at U20 level look to unseat reigning Champs New Zealand
By Alex Shaw
The World Rugby U20 Championship begins next week, as the best and brightest talents from around the world converge on Manchester for age-grade rugby’s annual showpiece event.
With the senior internationals also just days away, it’s important to note that the vast majority of players 27 or under in those squads came through this competition before progressing on to full international honour. The U20 Championship is the best place to see the superstars of tomorrow, today.
We’ve rounded up eight players that you should definitely keep tabs on over the next few weeks and who may be taking their places in those senior international squads, sooner rather than later.
Patelesio Tomkinson, New Zealand
Tomkinson is just the latest in a very long list of high-end talents to emerge in the midfield of the Baby Blacks side. The outside centre made his ITM Cup debut with Otago last year and was impressive enough in those performances to warrant a call-up to the Highlanders preseason training camp. He has yet to feature in Super Rugby but has already been earmarked as a potential star of the future at both club and international levels.
Tomkinson should line-up alongside Jordie Barrett, the younger brother of All Black fly-half Beauden, in the centres, but is also capable of filling in at wing should the need arise. Playing outside the playmaking Barrett will give Tomkinson plenty of opportunities to display his ability as a dangerous runner over the coming weeks.
Will Evans, England
Harry Mallinder and Johnny Williams are two players capable of taking this tournament by storm but given their performances in the Aviva Premiership and Europe this season, their talents are already well-known. Evans, who also made his Premiership debut this season, gives England something they have lacked for many of the years that the U20 classification has existed and that’s an extremely proficient operator at the breakdown.
It’s a perennial Achilles’ heel for England at this level, with the contact area often the nagging detraction from strong set-pieces and clinical back lines, but Evans will give England a chance to turn the breakdown tables on pool opponents Australia and Scotland. If Richard Cockerill thinks you’re ready for Premiership rugby, not to mention the fact Eddie Jones is asking for video of this young man’s practice sessions, you are certainly capable of making an impact in U20 rugby.
Junior Pokomela, South Africa
This mobile number eight is one of the brightest prospects in South African rugby and is already being talked about by many as the eventual successor to Duane Vermeulen, despite not yet making his Super Rugby debut. From starring in South Africa’s annual Craven Week to winning the U19 Currie Cup, Pokomela is on the fast-track to success.
The Junior Springboks’ pack is always a formidable prospect at U20 level and this year looks to be no exception. That should provide the foundations for Pokomela to do damage off the base of the scrum and with front foot ball, paving the way for the South African back line to hurt defences on the back foot.
Harri Keddie, Wales
From one exciting number eight to another, Harri Keddie was one of the stars of Wales’ recent U20 Six Nations Grand Slam. The muscular Newport Gwent Dragon seemingly never failed to break the gain line throughout the tournament and it was the holes he punched in defences that allowed the Welsh back line to flourish off of quick, clean ball.
With Wales in a pool with New Zealand, Ireland and a dangerous Georgia side, they will once again need to rely heavily on Keddie’s powerful carries if they are to have any chance of progressing to the semi-finals. With star-in-the-waiting Owen Watkin given the summer off, the pressure on Keddie increases significantly to get Wales moving forward on the pitch.
Robbie Nairn, Scotland
Nairn was one of the stars of the 2015 U20 Championship and will once again spearhead Scotland’s attack, but this time he will be supported by a more experienced and talent-rich squad. The former Edinburgh man, who signed for Harlequins just prior to his breakout campaign last summer, is the archetype for modern wings, displaying pace and power in equal measure and has the abilities to be a try-scoring threat whenever he finds space out wide.
With Adam Hastings pulling the strings of the Scottish back line, Nairn should see plenty of the ball over the coming weeks and will likely be Scotland’s main danger man in the oft expansive game that is international U20 rugby.
James Ryan, Ireland
An U20 captain and inspirational lock, Ryan has already been labelled as Ireland’s answer to Maro Itoje from some quarters. The Leinster lock may not quite have the mobility or technical skills that Itoje had at this point, but in terms of his leadership, brute force and dynamism with ball in hand, there are plenty of similarities.
Ryan is one of those players who makes things happen around him and is attracted to the ball like a magnet. Ireland’s prospects look bleak over the coming weeks, having been drawn alongside New Zealand and Wales in Pool A, but expect Ryan to shine regardless of their fortunes. This talented second row could well be the heir to Paul O’Connell’s throne in Ireland’s engine room.
Mack Mason, Australia
Few will envy Mason having to deal with England’s experienced Premiership duo of Mallinder and Williams, but the Australian fly-half has enough tricks up his sleeve to cause them plenty of problems in return. Mason played a pivotal role in Australia’s historic 25-24 victory over New Zealand U20s earlier this year, including landing the last-minute penalty that saw them creep in front of their rivals from across the Tasman.
Mason will have powerful strike runners outside him this month, including the Rebels’ Sione Tuipulotu and the Reds’ Campbell Magnay, the latter of whom has been impressing in Super Rugby. If the Australian pack can deliver parity at the set-piece and the breakdown, Mason has the skills to unleash a powerful midfield and a dangerous back three.
Damien Penaud, France
Penaud may be one of the most incisive and dangerous midfielders to play U20 rugby in years. The Clermont Auvergne centre has an instinctive understanding of rugby and runs some of the sweetest lines you’ll see at any level, relying on his game awareness and turn of pace, rather than a hulking frame, to beat defenders. The young centre is truly a scything throwback to a long-forgotten era of French rugby.
With Penaud at 13 and Gabriel N’Gandebe outside him on the wing, France have a two-man combination that will be able to beat defenders without the need for an overlap or mismatches with forwards. In fact, between Penaud’s cerebral play and N’Gandebe’s scintillating pace and footwork, there aren’t many defenders that won’t be considered mismatches to this pair.
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