The four nominees for the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2009 were announced on Friday and their coaches are well aware of why each one of them has received the nominations from the team coaches and media at the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship in Japan.
The four nominees - Winston Stanley and Aaron Cruden of New Zealand, England's Carl Fearns and Richard Kingi of Australia - were humbly surprised to have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of last year's winner, Luke Braid of New Zealand.
However, their Under 20 coaches are fully aware of the reasons their charges have been recognised for the prestigious award for the contribution they have made to their respective teams.
New Zealand head coach Dave Rennie is understandably happy that two of his leaders were among the nominees, but found it hard to separate captain Cruden and centre Stanley from other members of his squad who have caught the eye in Japan.
“It is nice recognition for those guys but quite difficult to single people out because we have got a lot of guys who have performed really well,” insisted Rennie, who guided New Zealand to last year's title in tandem with Russel Hilton-Jones.
This is a sentiment echoed by Stanley. “I was fairly surprised, a bit taken aback. I wasn’t really expecting it and didn’t even think I was in the running for something like that. It is encouraging for the country I suppose, there are probably a few other boys in our side who are probably just as deserving.”
For Cruden the nomination caps a remarkable year with the fly half having been given the all clear from testicular cancer in November, and Rennie knows what he will give to the team when he leads out to face England in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship final on Sunday.
“Aaron is a fantastic talent and runs the game well for us and has been great as a leader for us. He is a tough little nut and if you can fight your way through that sort of thing then you can certainly work your way through tougher games of rugby. He is certainly a tough character and that is the sort of character we are going to need on Sunday,” added Rennie.
For the fly half himself, despite showing his credentials in the semi final against Australia and being honoured to receive the recognition, he is eagerly keen to cap the Championship by lifting the distinctive trophy surrounded by his teammates.
“It was surprising, definitely surprising, but it is a huge honour,” admitted Cruden. “There are many good players around the world at this age and to be nominated as one of the best I am very honoured.
“Certainly things like that give you a bit of a boost but to be perfectly honest, if I could pick one or the other, while personally it would be fantastic if I could win that, I would really like to win the tournament. Rugby is a team sport and although individuals can shine I think the team coming first is more important than an individual.”
Only forward to be nominated
Another of the nominees has had setbacks over the past couple of years. Since captaining England at Under 18 level, Fearns has been out of international competition, bar one 40 minute run out in the Under 20 Six Nations, due to injury.
His head coach Mark Mapletoft believes this makes his performances in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship all the more exceptional and as the only forward in the four nominees, even more rewarding.
“Carl has had a fantastic four games. He has had a torrid two years since he captained the Under 18s in 2007 with knee injuries. Up until this tournament he played half a game. He is a great character, great leader that leads by example and players follow him,” said Mapletoft.
“To be able to have someone like him around assisting people in the key decision making positions is critical. He works hard, and a player like that, with any accolades coming their way is well deserved. I hope he recognises what a special nomination that is and proves why he has been one of the four nominated players on Sunday.”
The injury setback is also something that makes this nomination more special for number 8 Fearns, who has scored four tries for England in the four rounds of the Junior World Championship played todate.
“It is great news to be nominated for that award, I'm really pleased about it. Especially with this tournament being extra special for me because I have had a lot of injuries in the past and I haven’t had the chance to play at this age, so I am very pleased. There is a lot of class in the tournament and a lot of good players, so it is an honour to be nominated.”
As for the fourth, but by no means last, nominee Kingi, he has already broken the record for the most points in a JWC match (26) in Australia's opening match. His tally, which included a record equalling four tries, ensured the scrum half hit the ground running in Japan.
Adapting to a new position
His coach David Nucifora believes this nomination shows just how far Kingi has come in the past 12 months in adapting to a position he was new to a year ago and believes he can go one better and wear the Wallaby shirt in the future.
“It is a very impressive accolade to be put in that category of player. Richard has done really well - he has had a very good year so he deserves it. He is only new to the position, so he has had a very steep learning curve. To adjust to that and to be nominated at this level he has done very well,” said Nucifora.
“He has plenty of potential, if you see what he has delivered so far on the back of very little experience as a scrum half. It has been a big year for him all round, with the Sevens and prior to this he wasn’t in our development programmes. This is his first year of recognition and he has obviously come a long way.”
Kingi shares the modesty of the other nominees and is keen to keep his nomination under wraps, at least until the actual recipient is announced and the award presented after the final whistle blows in the title decider.
“I am very happy, more surprised than anything. I am just overwhelmed but I honestly don’t think I could have done it without the boys. I just work off them, support lines and do my job.
“I like to keep those things under wraps. If I do get a chance to possibly win it I will get on the phone to home but for now I will keep it low key. I have been nominated so hopefully I could get it if all things work out.”