The future of world rugby is in safe hands


© Martin Seras Lima




Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of our sport, a chance for players to shine and represent their country with great pride, hoping to create a piece of history along the way. For some, RWC 2015 will be the final chapter of an illustrious career, for others it is their first taste of the showpiece event.


Over the last five weeks some of the brightest young talents in the game have shown that rugby’s future is in safe hands, the next generation of players more than able to carry on the mantle when some of the greatest players ever to grace a rugby pitch hang up their boots.


More than a third of the players involved at RWC 2015 have played in the World Rugby U20 Championship or Trophy tournaments since they were introduced in 2008, with every nation featuring players to graduate from one or both of these to the test arena.


One of them, All Blacks second-row Sam Whitelock, already has a RWC winners’ medal after being part of the 2011 success on home soil, while others can boast Six Nations or Rugby Championship titles or a coveted series victory with the British and Irish Lions.




Others have played their parts in moments of magic at RWC 2015, starting with Georgia’s teenage scrum-half Vasil Lobzhandize on the opening weekend against Tonga, becoming the youngest ever player in Rugby World Cup history in his side’s 17-10 victory in Gloucester.


Lobzhanidze, who back in May was a stand-out player as Georgia won the U20 Trophy in Portugal, was just 18 years and 340 days old when the Lelos caused the first upset of RWC 2015.


Then Michael Leitch captained Japan to arguably the biggest shock in rugby history, let alone Rugby World Cup, the flanker scoring a try and bravely backing his players to score the try to get the win, rather than kick for a draw against South Africa.


His faith was repaid with Karne Hesketh’s try, the 34-32 victory Japan’s first at a Rugby World Cup since 1991 and by the time the Brave Blossoms returned home as heroes they had become the first to win three matches and fail to reach the quarter-finals.


Leitch, who captained Japan in the 2008 U20 Championship, is one of six U20 graduates to captain his country at RWC 2015, Sam Warburton again leading Wales to the quarter-finals with Tyler Ardron (Canada), Martín Landajo (Argentina), Henry Pyrgos (Scotland) and Sam Cane (New Zealand) the others, the latter becoming the fifth youngest All Blacks captain against Namibia, two months younger than a certain Richie McCaw was back in 2004.




Players have also left their mark on the scoring charts with Wales centre Cory Allen scoring the first hat-trick of RWC 2015 against Uruguay before injury ended his tournament, with fellow U20 graduates Jack Nowell and Julian Savea following suit.


All Blacks wing Savea has been ripping up the record books in his first Rugby World Cup, his hat-trick against France in the quarter-final making him the first to score multiple hat-tricks in a single tournament and he has now equalled the record of eight tries in one edition held by his boyhood idol Jonah Lomu and South Africa winger Bryan Habana.


However, Savea, one of four former World Rugby Junior Players of the Year gracing RWC 2015 – the others being England’s George Ford and South African duo Handré Pollard and Jan Serfontein, has not been alone in lighting up the tournament.


Fly-half Dan Biggar, who helped Wales finish fourth at the 2008 U20 Championship on home soil, scored a Welsh record 23 points as they stunned hosts England at Twickenham on 26 September, while Georgian full-back and U20 Trophy graduate Beka Tsiklauri will never forget the day he scored a try against world champions New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium.


In the pulsating quarter-finals last weekend, more than a third of players involved had come through the U20 Championship and they accounted for 14 of the 26 tries scored. Pollard also kicked 18 points in South Africa’s win, while Nicolás Sánchez was named man of the match after pulling the strings and kicking 23 points – a record for a RWC knockout match – as Argentina beat Ireland 40-23.




For Pollard, an U20 Championship winner in 2012, the tournament is vital to a player’s development.


“I’ve said it a million times, it’s great, a great building phase for a player to go to the Under 20 World Cup. I was privileged to go to three of them – and I learnt something different from each of them.”


“It’s an unbelievably great experience and I firmly believe it’s something that a young player should go through if he wants to play test rugby.”


In total, more than 600 players have graduated to test rugby after playing in the U20 Championship or Trophy, including scrum-halves Rudy Paige (South Africa) and Tudorel Bratu (Romania) in this tournament, and it’s importance could not be highlighted more than by Uruguay who, in their first RWC for 12 years, fielded at least 11 players in their starting line-up in every Pool A match who had followed this pathway.


Seven of the 12-man referee panel for RWC 2015 have also come through the U20 Championship, including semi-final referee Jérôme Garcès.


Georgian time


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