Halfpenny leads a host of JWC 2008 graduates
By Karen Bond
Twelve months ago Leigh Halfpenny was one of the standout players in the inaugural IRB Junior World Championship on home soil and was widely regarded by many as someone who would wear the Welsh jersey in the years to come.
No-one, including Halfpenny himself, ever imagined that a year on he would not only have made his international debut for Wales against world champions South Africa and amassed four tries in his six Tests, but now be touring the same country with the British & Irish Lions as their youngest tourist for 41 years.
A remarkable turnaround for a player who had decided to concentrate on his studies and plans to become a dentist after not being offered a contract by the Ospreys, but is now living a dream which few players get to experience in their whole career, never mind still six months shy of his 21st birthday.
“I just can’t believe how things have turned out, I could never have imagined it when last summer I was taking my A Levels that a year later I would be going on a British Lions tour,” Halfpenny told Total Rugby recently.
“It has just been an unbelievable season and just highlight after highlight. I couldn’t have expected to even be playing for the [Cardiff] Blues regularly, so to get the call up for Wales and now being on the Lions tour is just unbelievable and a dream come true.
“I remember in the World Cup for the Under 20s last season just looking at the next season ahead and just looking at the wingers that were there with the Blues and there will be no chance of getting any games for them this season. I just thought maybe if one or two of the boys got called up for Wales, maybe have a game there or the end of the season.
“I just can’t believe everything that has happened.”
Perfect preparation for Test arena
Halfpenny, who joked he nearly hit his head on a light jumping up after hearing his name read out during the Lions squad announcement, is quick to credit the experiences of playing in the IRB Junior World Championship for helping him handle his rapid rise through the ranks.
“That is what it is all about, getting the experience and preparing yourself for a higher standard of rugby and after that I was pretty pleased with the way the World Cup went for myself but also Wales, we tested teams right to the limit.
“New Zealand in the semis, at half time I think it was 10-6 and we were in with a shout there. It puts you up there playing against the best players in the world of your age and I felt it definitely prepared me for things to come at the higher level.
“It was such a physical and high intensity tournament, just playing on superb surfaces, just playing against the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and France, some of the best teams in the world, and I have come across one or two [of those players] along the way this season, so it has been great to see other players come through from that tournament as well.”
Halfpenny may have grabbed the headlines with his rapid ascension, but he is certainly not alone in proving the importance of a tournament like the IRB Junior World Championship in developing young players with many of the 2008 class having since made their own international Test debuts.
Three other members of that Welsh Under 20 squad have also now played for the Red Dragons with Daniel Biggar making his debut against Canada last year and Daniel Evans and Jonathan Davies doing so last weekend against the same opposition.
Biggar would actually have been eligible to play in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship which kick off in Japan on Friday, but instead is with Wales in North America. Last year’s captain Sam Warburton could also become Wales’ 1,070th international if he comes off the bench against USA on Saturday.
Debuts against the All Blacks
Wales are not the only nation to have fast-tracked talented young players into the senior ranks with Morgan Parra the first choice scrum half for France at the end of the RBS Six Nations and with the added responsibility of the kicking duties.
Parra was to have toured New Zealand and Australia with France this summer, but a shoulder injury suffered playing for Bourgoin in the European Challenge Cup final ruled him out. However powerful centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who made his debut against Wales in the Six Nations, will travel Down Under.
Australian captain David Pocock was another player to catch the eye in Wales, the flanker having previously played for Australia A in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup in 2007 before making his Wallabies debut as a replacement against New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong last November.
Pocock has been named in the Wallabies squad for matches against the Barbarians, Italy and France this month, along with another Under 20 player of 2008 in fly half Quade Cooper, a player who marked his own international debut with a try against Italy last November.
Three other players, like Pocock, made their debuts against the All Blacks last year with full back Alatasi Tupou starting for Samoa and Roysui Tolufale and Maselino Paulino coming off the bench in their side’s 101-14 defeat and will all hope to be involved in the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup 2009.
Another player who could be representing his country in the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup is Michael Leitch, who made his debut for the Brave Blossoms against USA in the autumn internationals and was part of Japan’s successful HSBC Asian Five Nations title defence in 2009.
Leitch, who captained Japan’s Under 20s in the inaugural IRB Junior World Championship, is actually yet to taste defeat in the Test arena and could be joined by others in the senior squad before too long with coach John Kirwan admitting this week he was hoping to have three or four of the 2009 squad with him next year.
Smaller steps with A squads
A player widely tipped to join Kirwan in being able to call himself an All Black in the years to come is Ryan Crotty, the centre having helped New Zealand win the inaugural Junior World Championship a year after breaking his ankle in the Under 19 final. Crotty is one step nearer that dream, having been named in the Junior All Blacks squad for the Pacific Nations Cup after a strong season for the Super 14 semi finalists, the Crusaders.
The graduation into the Test arena is not only confined to the southern hemisphere with Andrea Bacchetti and Roberto Quartaroli having made their debuts for Italy in this year’s Six Nations as replacements against Ireland and Wales respectively.
Centre Quartaroli will tour Australia and New Zealand this summer along with Simone Favarro, while Bacchetti heads to Romania with Italy A for the IRB Nations Cup along with his former U20 teammates Andrea De Marchi, Massimiliano Ravalle, Tommaso D’Apice, Riccardo Bocchino and Andrea Pratichetti.
Italy A’s opening match in the IRB Nations Cup, which gets underway on 12 June, is against France A and Bacchetti and co could come face to face with two members of the French Under 20 squad last year in Yann David and Yoann Maestri.
In North America, Shawn Pittman made the step up to the international stage as a front row replacement in the USA Eagles’ 43-9 victory over Uruguay last November, before appearing against Japan the following week.
Scott Lavalla, the USA Under 20 captain when they were relegated from the IRB Junior World Championship last year, is in the Eagles’ squad for their matches against the Churchill Cup and Rugby World Cup qualifiers this summer.
Another Junior Eagle to have made the step up his Tai Enosa, the talented fly half having racked up the air miles in recent weeks with some impressive displays in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Kenya, then marked his USA Sevens debut with a try against Fiji at the Emirates Airline London Sevens before linking up with the USA senior squad.
Trophy also provides a pathway
Over the border in Canada, they have seen Matt Evans make his international debut as a replacement against Ireland at Thomond Park last year, while Andrew Tiedemann ironically won a first cap against the same opposition in a 25-6 loss last month on home soil and then started in a narrow loss to Wales last weekend.
Jordan Turner-Hall ran out at Twickenham last weekend against the Barbarians, but will have to wait a little longer for his first England cap as this was not a Test match. The centre helped England reach the final in Wales and two other members of that squad – Noah Cato and Joe Simpson – are currently in Colorado with the England Saxons for their Churchill Cup title defence.
It would be wrong to mention only the players to have graduated to the Test arena from the Junior World Championship, given that a number of those who represented Chile and Uruguay in the second tier Junior World Rugby Trophy final a few months earlier have taken the same path.
Matías Fonseca, Leandro Levias and Geronimo Etcheverry all made their Test debuts for Uruguay in the same match that Pittman made his USA Eagles debut. Fonseca and Etcheverry both played in Los Teros’ Rugby World Cup 2011 qualifying matches against Chile and Brazil this year, as did another member of their Junior World Rugby Trophy winning side Santiago Gibernau.
Three players made their Chile debuts in the South American Championship this year against Paraguay in Sebastián Aviles, Alejandro Rios and Under 20 captain Benjamín del Solar, while Luca Salamuunic and the highly-rated centre Francisco de la Fuente had won their first caps in the RWC 2011 qualifier victory over Brazil in Viña del Mar a week earlier.
With so many players from the inaugural tournament having shown that a quick transition to senior international rugby is possible and the importance of such international Age Grade competitions, the mantle now passes to the class of 2009.
How many of those playing at the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship in Japan this month will have followed in the footsteps of Halfpenny, Pocock, Bacchetti, Parra, Fonseca et al this time next year?