New Zealand Under 20 captain Chris Smith lifts the IRB Junior World Championship trophy



As the year draws to a close, we take a look back at the first ever IRB Junior World Championship in Wales.

New Zealand Under 20s ensured theirs would be the first name engraved on the IRB Junior World Championship trophy - which had replaced the Under 19 and Under 21 tournaments - with an impressive campaign in Wales in June 2008.

Picking up where they had left off by winning the IRB Under 19 World Championship the previous year in Belfast, New Zealand swept all before them in a deluge of points and free-flowing rugby to beat every opponent by at least 25 points en route to the silverware.

It was, perhaps, unsurprising that the Baby Blacks were so dominant given that three quarters of their 26-man squad had been part of that success, including centre Ryan Crotty who had missed the celebrations after being stretchered off early in the 2007 final with a broken ankle.

No side got within touching distance of New Zealand - just as only South Africa had lost by less than 25 points in the Under 19s the previous year - with host nation Wales coming the closest to testing the champions with a 31-6 defeat in the semi finals.

A special group of players

England faired no better in the final, being put to the sword 38-3 at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea with Kade Poki, Jackson Willison, Andre Taylor and Crotty all crossing the whitewash to take New Zealand's tally to 34 tries in the tournament.

Even more impressive was the fact that New Zealand had conceded just one try in their six matches - scored by Ireland number 8 Patrick Mallon in his side's 65-10 defeat in Pool A - and a total of 28 points while scoring 242 points of their own along the way.

New Zealand co-coach Russel Hilton-Jones and his England counterpart Nigel Redman were certainly under no illusions as to the qualities of this Baby Blacks side that showed the future of the national team is in good hands in the years to come.

"We've got a special group," admitted co-coach Russel Hilton-Jones after the final. "I've been lucky enough to be involved in age group rugby in New Zealand for six years and this is the best group of players I've had dealings with."

Former England international Redman added: "New Zealand have been an awesome side now for two years. They won the tournament last year by putting 30-points plus on everyone. We knew it would be a very tough final."


South Africa had to survive a scare against Samoa to reach the semi finals

Sixteen teams had converged on the Principality for the inaugural tournament - the second tier, the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, having already been won by Uruguay two months earlier - with Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham each hosting a pool.

New Zealand were untouchable in Pool A, opening their campaign with a 48-9 defeat of Tonga before even more convincing victories over Ireland and Argentina 60-0 at Cardiff Arms Park ensured the favourites' passage to the semi finals.

In Pool B it was South Africa who emerged top of the pile, albeit only after an almighty scare by Samoa in their final match in Wrexham. The Baby Boks had easily dispatched USA 1-8-18 and Scotland 72-3, but they needed a last gasp try from centre Stefan Watermeyer to snatch a 16-11 victory against the determined Samoans.

Redman's charges met old rivals Australia in the Pool C decider in Newport on match day three - both sides having already overcome Canada and Fiji comfortably - and, just as in the Rugby World Cup the previous year, it was England who triumphed 18-13 thanks to wing Miles Benjamin's late try to set up a last four encounter with South Africa.

Welsh hopes of a semi final on home soil looked to have disappeared in their final Pool D encounter with France in Swansea when they trailed 19-9 with a little over 10 minutes to go. However the hosts refused to accept defeat and ultimately got their reward when wing Leigh Halfpenny scored an injury-time try to seal the 23-19 comeback win.

Plenty at stake in playoffs

While New Zealand, Wales, England and South Africa focused on the semi finals, the other 12 teams moved into playoff mode for the places from fifth to 16th with the next two match days taking on extra significance for Tonga, USA, Fiji and Japan - the bottom sides in each pool - with the side finishing last to be relegated to the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2009.

The two matches at Wrexham's Racecourse Ground were equally tight with Tonga needing two late tries to finally prevail 17-5 over the well-organised Japanese, while Fiji set up an all Pacific Islands affair by beating a USA side that fought admirably until the end 27-22. Tonga ultimately triumphed in this physical battle with a 28-20 win to finish 13th in the Championship.

The defeats meant that Japan and USA met in the relegation playoff, a match the Japanese won convincingly in the end, scoring six tries for a 44-8 victory - their first in the tournament - to condemn the Junior Eagles to the Junior World Rugby Trophy in 2009.

Scotland edged a tight battle with Canada 15-10 thanks to Jamie Murray's extra time try to set up a ninth place playoff meeting with Six Nations rivals Ireland, who had also needed extra time to finally see of Italy, Ian Porter's penalty in the second period securing a 9-6 win at Cardiff Arms Park.

Ireland ran out convincing 39-12 winners over Scotland to secure ninth place, while Italy bounced back from their extra time disappointment to beat Canada - just as they had done in the Under 19 Division B final a year earlier - 33-10 to claim 11th spot overall.

The two matches between sides who had finished as runners up in their respective pools were more clear cut with France beating Argentina 30-10 and Australia ended Samoan hopes with a convincing 32-0 triumph.


By the end of 2008, Leigh Halfpenny had made his senior debut for Wales

Samoa, though, bounced back to claim seventh spot by defeating Argentina 30-10, while a hat-trick from giant wing Ratu Nasiganiyavi - which meant he ended the tournament as leading try scorer with seven - saw Australia finish as 'best of the rest' with a 42-12 defeat of France in Cardiff.

So to the semi finals. Worrying for Wales, the New Zealand camp insisted they hadn't produced their best yet … and so it proved with the Baby Blacks having too much in the locker to end the host nation's title ambitions with a professional 31-6 victory.

In the other semi final England ensured it would not be another southern hemisphere battle for the title by defeating South Africa 26-18 at a rain lashed Cardiff Arms Park with scrum half Joe Simpson producing a man of the match performance behind an effective pack.

England had high hopes of completing a Tri Nations hat-trick by adding New Zealand's scalp to those of Australia and South Africa in the knockout stages, but in reality the writing was on the wall from the moment Poki crossed for the Baby Blacks' opening score.

The third place playoff also yielded another southern hemisphere win with South Africa bouncing back from the disappointment of losing to England by defeating the hosts 43-18.

There was no denying, though, that New Zealand were the rightful champions as captain Chris Smith lifted yet more silverware, but whether that will be the case come the 2009 edition in Japan is a different matter.

RESULTS:

POOL A

06/06/2008 - New Zealand 48-9 Tonga
06/06/2008 - Argentina 17-9 Ireland
10/06/2008 - Argentina 30-10 Tonga
10/06/2008 - New Zealand 65-10 Ireland
14/06/2008 - Ireland 45-27 Tonga
14/06/2008 - New Zealand 60-0 Argentina

POOL B

06/06/2008 - South Africa 108-18 USA
06/06/2008 - Samoa 29-17 Scotland
10/06/2008 - Samoa 20-6 USA
10/06/2008 - South Africa 72-3 Scotland
14/06/2008 - Scotland 41-14 USA
14/06/2008 - South Africa 16-11 Samoa

POOL C

06/06/2008 - Australia 81-12 Canada
06/06/2008 - England 41-17 Fiji
10/06/2008 - England 60-18 Canada
10/06/2008 - Australia 53-17 Fiji
14/06/2008 - Australia 13-18 England
14/06/2008 - Fiji 10-17 Canada

POOL D

06/06/2008 - France 53-17 Japan
06/06/2008 - Wales 29-10 Italy
10/06/2008 - France 32-14 Italy
10/06/2008 - Wales 33-10 Japan
14/06/2008 - Japan 20-24 Italy
14/06/2008 - Wales 23-19 France

PLAYOFFS

18/06/2008 - Tonga 17-5 Japan
18/06/2008 - Scotland 15-10 Canada
18/06/2008 - Argentina 6-30 France
18/06/2008 - USA 22-27 Fiji
18/06/2008 - Ireland 9-6 Italy
18/06/2008 - Samoa 0-32 Australia

SEMI FINALS

18/06/2008 - New Zealand 31-6 Wales
18/06/2008 - England 26-18 South Africa

PLAYOFFS

21/06/2008 - 15th Place Playoff - Japan 44-8 USA
21/06/2008 - 13th Place Playoff - Tonga 28-20 Fiji
22/06/2008 - 11th Place Playoff - Italy 33-10 Canada
22/06/2008 - 9th Place Playoff - Ireland 39-12 Scotland
22/06/2008 - 7th Place Playoff - Argentina 10-30 Samoa
22/06/2008 - 5th Place Playoff - France 21-42 Australia
22/06/2008 - 3rd Place Playoff - Wales 18-43 South Africa

FINAL

22/06/2008 - New Zealand 38-3 England