Much has been made of the fact that New Zealand and England will lock horns in the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 final on Sunday, just as they did 12 months ago in Wales when the Baby Blacks ran out convincing 38-3 winners.
However only one member of New Zealand’s class of 2009 knows what it felt like to lift the distinctive trophy in Wales last year in Zac Guildford, the wing having played in all five matches as the top seeds swept aside all challengers.
A case of déjà vu then for Guildford, whose two tries against Australia in the semi final means he goes into the title showdown not only as the joint leading try scorer in Japan with Welsh forward Justin Tipuric but also on top of the all-time JWC try standings.
“I guess it feels that way,” admitted Guildford. “We met them this time last year and it’s a game that is on the cards for a great final. I think they are a lot better side than last year so we are expecting a much stronger challenge.”
The Hurricanes wing is not only looking for a second successive Age Grade title with New Zealand, but actually his third in a row having been part of squad which were the last to be win the IRB Under 19 World Championship in Belfast in 2007.
Three in a row
“I am pretty lucky really, not many people get three World Cups never mind three finals, so I guess it is just a huge privilege and to win this final would be the icing on the cake really,” admitted Guildford, who turned 20 in February.
“It is a little bit different just because this is going to be the last time I am going to be at a Junior World Cup, so I guess this one means a little bit more and I have been putting that little bit more effort into the homework I have done on opposite teams and that sort of thing.”
The final has been billed by many as the best forwards (England) against the best backline (New Zealand) in the Championship and Guildford, who jokes that sometimes he sounds like the “grumpy old fella” in the team, is in little doubt where key battle is likely to be.
“I think the battle up front will be key. They have got a huge pack and we are not as big as them but we certainly won’t lack in heart, so we are going to be trying our hearts out to combat that size. England’s pack looks quite dangerous and large.
“But if we can get front foot ball from our forwards it makes the first five’s and so on’s jobs a lot more easier and we can get that front foot ball and hopefully cross the line a few times. That is the key really.”
Lucky number 13?
Winston Stanley, who was yesterday named along with New Zealand captain Aaron Cruden as one of four nominees for the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2009 award, is himself hoping to claim a second Age Grade title after success with the Under 19s in 2007.
“I think Australia tried to take us on especially up the middle with their forwards, England do that as well, obviously they are quite structured and they have got a big forward pack,” said Stanley, who will wear the number 13 shirt in the final, just as his uncle Joe did when the All Blacks won the World Cup in 1987.
“But I think England are looking to use the ball wide and really challenge us out there as well, so I think it will be a much more open game against England in the final [than against Australia]. I think there will be some good footy played out there.
“It would be huge for me personally [to win the title] and it is something I am really gunning for. I have put a lot of work into it and really feel a lot more a part of this side and so to win this tournament this year would be huge especially.
“I wouldn’t say it would be any sweeter, any world title is valuable in itself, but certainly a lot of people doubted us that we would even be able to make it to this stage of the tournament. Australia were sort of looking quite good early on.
A hell of a challenge
“It would be really sweet to win the title but in saying that England are a big challenge for us.”
New Zealand coach Dave Rennie, who in tandem with Russel Hilton-Jones guided last year’s talented squad to the inaugural title, is not about to deny such a statement as he knows that the past counts for very little and the tag of world champions could easily go to either side on Sunday.
“I think last year it was probably a bit more clear cut as to the two teams that may work their way through, but obviously things are a lot tighter this year and we always thought it was anyone’s title, so we are just glad to be part of it.
“We have an England team now, I know they have got a few back from last year and they have had a lot of games together, a dozen or more, so they are playing really good footy. They are a very good side and I think much stronger than last year and certainly playing a different brand of footy that will challenge us a hell of a lot more, that is for sure.”
So would moulding a totally new side into champions mean more to Rennie than the victory in Wales?
“I think it would actually. Last year’s team, we were pretty dominant. They played good footy, but a lot of them had been to a World Cup before and experienced that. For these guys it is a completely different challenge and so if they are able to win it, it would be a fantastic achievement.”
Raising the bar again
The desire to create their own piece of history has been something Cruden has stressed from the outset, the title of defending champions not sitting easily on the squad’s shoulders because with the exception of Guildford they played no part in earning that tag.
“It will be fantastic to win back to back titles,” admitted Cruden. “The team last year did very well but this is a whole new group of guys and we sort of want to path our own way and just make our own history in that sense.
“It was a tough test [against Australia], it was exactly what we needed, a good physical battle heading into the final which will be exactly the same. England have a massive team, big forwards and strong running backs, so we are going to have to step it up a notch from the semi if we are wanting to win this final.
“We definitely can still raise the bar and that is what we are going to do and I am sure all the boys are focused and ready for that. We are very excited, very focused and ready for the challenge. It is going to be a huge task, the biggest game of many of the boys’ careers so far and I am sure they are going to step up.”
Another thing that Guildford, Stanley and Cruden are united on is what the main strength of this New Zealand Under 20 side is.
“Just a lot of passion,” explained Cruden. “Just wearing the silver fern across your chest. Not many people get to experience it and just when you put that one you have just got to bring your best, just to do the best you can and I am sure that is what the boys are going to do.
“If our best is good enough [to win the title] then that is fantastic.”
** Watch New Zealand take on England in the IRB
TOSHIBA Junior World Championship 2009 Final live and on-demand for free on
Sunday 21 June. The final kicks off at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in
Tokyo at 15:00 local time after the third place play-off between Australia and
South Africa. **
Click here for more details >>
** You can also watch on-demand the two semi finals - New Zealand v Australia and England v South Africa **