The fact that there have been three different champions in as many years show how tightly contested the RBS Under 20 Six Nations is with sides eager to lay down a marker before the summer’s IRB Junior World Championship in Italy.
Ireland are the defending champions, following in the footsteps of 2008 winners England and 2009 champions France, and whoever lifts the silverware in 2011 will hope to provide a genuine challenge for the prestigious Junior World Championship in June.
England have been the leading European nation at the prestigious Under 20 tournament in its three year history, finishing as runners up to New Zealand in 2008 and 2009 and then fourth in Argentina last year, and will be many people’s tip for the Six Nations crown.
This is because many of the squad have played together for a couple of years now in the hugely successful Under 18 team under John Fletcher, a side that has lost only once in three years, and should benefit from a good understanding and consistency.
England, though, are one of four teams in the Championship with a new coach at the helm since last year’s Junior World Championship or Junior World Rugby Trophy in Italy’s case, with only the Italians and France with the same head coach in office.
Rob Hunter has stepped up from the assistant role to replace Mark Mapletoft in charge of England, while Darren Edwards, Peter Wright and Mike Ruddock have taken on the responsibility of guiding the next generation of Welsh, Scottish and Irish players respectively.
Injury blow for Wales
Edwards has already suffered a blow before his side take on England at the Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli with scrum half Aled Davies tearing knee ligaments in training this week, necessitating surgery and ending his season with an expected six-month recovery.
Jonathan Davies steps up from the bench with Lewis Jones taking his place on the bench as Edwards, who takes over from Phil Davies, looks to gauge the potential of his charges in what is sure to be a passionate and hugely competitive encounter.
“This will be a tough opener for us but it will give us a clear idea of where we are and where we need to go. You don’t get many bigger challenges than playing a strong England side at home to kick off the Six Nations and we need to make sure we stay focused on our own game.”
Alex Gray will captain England from number 8, one of a handful of players with Junior World Championship experience. George Ford, the son of England defence coach Mike, is a player tipped for a bright future, while Wales are no doubt pleased that Leicester Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi will play for the England Saxons not the Under 20s this weekend.
“We’re excited about getting stuck into the Six Nations, we’ve enjoyed good camps in Portugal and Surrey and it’s time to put ourselves to the test. Starting off against Wales in Wales is as good as it gets and we’ll be taking each game as it comes throughout the campaign,” admitted Hunter.
“I’m pleased with where we are. It is tough to whittle the squad down to 22, we have some outstanding players at this age grade and a lot of competition for places. It’s vital to get the blend right and we want to give the lads the opportunity both to perform and develop."
Clean slate for Ireland
Ireland travel to Italy with five players from their 2010 Junior World Championship squad, including Andrew Conway who scored five tries in as many matches in Argentina last June. The full back will again be a key player in an Irish team captained by another returnee Niall Annett.
Ruddock, the former Grand Slam winning coach with Wales, is no stranger to Age Grade rugby with his sons Ciaran and Rhys having both played for Ireland in recent years, the latter as captain in 2010 before being called away from Argentina to make his Test debut in Australia.
“After winning the Championship last season the stakes are set high for us this year,” admitted Ruddock. “But this is a new season, a new squad and a clean slate.
“Our focus for now is on kicking off the Championship with a strong performance and while it is great to have a core of experienced players we will be looking for the entire squad to show what they can do.
“We have prepared well and have gelled as a team. The skill level, attitude and performances of the players and of the team as a whole have been very impressive. We hope to reproduce this for the tournament.”
Italy were the only side not involved in last year’s Junior World Championship, instead winning the sister tournament, the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Russia in impressive fashion. Two members of that squad have already graduated to the Test side, including Edoardo Gori who will start at scrum half against the senior Irish side in Rome.
Scotland plan high-tempo game
Five members of that title winning squad will face Ireland, including new captain Piermaria Leso and half backs Guglielmo Palazzani and Luca Morisi as Italy look to start positively in a year that will see them host the Junior World Championship in Treviso, Rovigo and Padova from 10-26 June.
Scotland were the lowest ranked of the five European sides at last year’s Junior World Championship in 10th after only one win in five matches, but new coach Wright has challenged his players to play an attacking brand of rugby against France in Caen on Friday.
“We’ve said to the players from the outset that we want to play an ambitious, high-tempo game, and the team we’ve selected for the France game is more than capable of delivering that,” insisted the former Scotland and British & Irish Lions prop.
“There’s a really good blend of skills and influences in the side, with guys coming from across the club game, others that are linked to the professional teams and a further few from south of the border.
“We’ll look to exploit the mix of ideas these guys bring to the table and play in such a way that puts pressure on our opponents. It’s obviously a challenging fixture to start off our campaign, but we go there with confidence in our own ability and ready to front up.”
The two sides drew 8-8 on the opening day of the 2010 Six Nations and will be looking for a better start in 2011 if they are to improve on their finishes of fourth (France) and fifth respectively and gain some momentum in the build up to the Junior World Championship.