Rival wings Kade Poki and Miles Benjamin will both be aiming to put a golden glow on stellar seasons when they do battle in the IRB Junior World Championship final in Swansea on Sunday.
New Zealand’s Poki and England’s Benjamin have shone for club and country over the past 12 months but the world Under 20 showdown at the Liberty Stadium looms as the biggest day yet in their fledgling careers.
“There’s no doubt it will be the biggest game of my life,” said Benjamin, who scored nine tries from 15 appearances for Worcester Warriors in his maiden Guinness Premiership season.
“Representing your country in a World Cup final at any level is a special occasion and we just can’t wait. We’ve worked really hard as a squad to get here so we can’t wait to enjoy the moment and hopefully come away with the title.”
Poki was a member of New Zealand team that triumphed at the IRB Under 19 World Championship in Belfast last year, and last month helped Canterbury Crusaders claim the Super 14 crown in the final against the New South Wales Waratahs.
But he, too, believes the stakes on Sunday could not be higher.
“It’s right up there with the Super 14 title – winning this would be right up there with that,” he said.
“The boys are like family. We are real close, real tight, so to win this together would be awesome.”
It has been a long and hectic road to Sunday’s final for both players, but neither is complaining.
“I perhaps hadn’t expected to play as much as I did at Worcester this season,” said Benjamin, “but you just take the chances the coaches give you and you just try and keep your place in the team.
“Yes, it has really been a whirlwind season for me and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Poki, meanwhile, scarcely had time to draw breath after the Crusaders’ victory before jetting off with team-mates Sean Maitland and Nasi Manu to join the squad in Wales.
“We only had the one night to celebrate,” he said. “It would have been good to stay with the boys and celebrate for a bit longer but we had a job to do over here so we had to get over here as soon as possible. It was hard switching environments."
Improved his game
Playing alongside All Blacks royalty such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw at the Crusaders has improved his game immensely.
“A lot of guys there have helped me with my positional play. Just being around some of those big stars is a big buzz and it gives you a lot of confidence and psyches you up for the games. It’s awesome just being in that province.”
Benjamin has the utmost respect for his rival’s abilities, but is keen to turn on the style himself, having already helped himself, like Poki and eight others, to four tries at this tournament.
“He’s a very exciting player,” he said of Poki. “He’s got good feet, he’s quick. I’ve seen him do some nice things for the Crusaders this season. But you always try to be competitive and hope you can get one over on your opposite number, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Confidence the key
The tournament has featured some excellent wide play, from Benjamin, Poki and Maitland to name a few, but what makes a great wing?
“Confidence is a key factor,” Benjamin said. “A lot of the time you may spend 10 minutes not getting your hands on the ball and then when an opportunity comes along you’ve got to be the first person to put your hand up and try and get on the scoresheet, which is what most coaches want from their wingers.
“Then, wherever possible, you just work hard and help your forwards out because they have a much tougher job than us wingers do. You just do your bit for the team really.”
Benjamin said he had been impressed by New Zealand but he and his team-mates would not go into the final in awe of their opponents.
“They’ve got some really good individuals but we’re confident [based on] how our season has gone, how we’ve progressed. We’re just really looking forward to showing everyone what we can do and hopefully come away as world champions.”
And while much has been made of England’s forward muscle, Benjamin, like coach Nigel Redman, believes the team has produced some great ball-carrying play throughout this tournament and during its winning Six Nations campaign.
“We aim to play an expansive game, so I would have thought I’ll see a lot of ball and if not, you go hunting for it as much as possible.
“But both sides have shown the type of game they want to play at this tournament and I’m sure it will be an exciting affair for people watching and the players themselves.”
Poki believes his side is yet to hit top gear in their four previous matches, including the semi-final against Wales on Wednesday, in which they ran in four tries in difficult conditions at Newport’s Rodney Parade en route to a 31-6 victory.
“We’ve still got a lot of room for improvement, so hopefully we can peak for this final,” he said.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best combinations on the field or the best performance.
“There’s a lot of depth in our squad and I think that might be a telling factor in the game.”
**Listen to live match commentary of the third place play-off between Wales and South Africa from 17:00 UK time and the Final between New Zealand and England from 19:00 on Sunday, 22 June on this website!**
**Finals day tickets are on sale at just £2 for children and £8 for adults. Fans are advised to purchase tickets for the Liberty Stadium finals day well in advance of kick-off. The Liberty Stadium Box Office is open Friday until 6pm, Saturday 10am – 4pm and from 12 noon on Sunday. Fans can also pre-book by calling 08700 400 004.**
- Semi-final: England 26-18 South Africa »
- Semi-final: New Zealand 31-6 Wales »
- New Zealand still to hit peak in Wales »
- Australia 13-18 England »
- New Zealand 60-0 Argentina »
- Catt ready to sink claws into Australia »
- England 60-18 Canada »
- Poki aiming for dream finish »
- New Zealand 65-10 Ireland »
- England 41-17 Fiji »
- New Zealand 48-9 Tonga »