With the IRB Junior World Championship 2011 poised to kick-off on Friday in Italy, we celebrate the achievements of New Zealand Under 20s in winning the three previous titles by selecting a Baby Blacks XV from across these years.
With so many talented players from which to select, whittling the 75 plus players to have worn the Baby Blacks jersey over the last three years down to just 15 was not an easy task, particularly when it came to positions like the front row, back row and wings.
Some names virtually picked themselves having gone on to play for the All Blacks, while all three of the IRB Junior Players of the Year have made the selection with one falling into both categories, Aaron Cruden, selected as the captain.
The selection made we then spoke to Dave Rennie, the man who guided New Zealand to the titles in Wales, Japan and Argentina, to get his thoughts on players in the Baby Blacks XV, what they brought to the team and others who were unlucky to miss out.
BABY BLACKS XV
1. Angus Taavao-Matau (2010)
Dave Rennie: “The two props chosen are very big men, it’s a challenging area for our young Kiwis guys but these are two young fells who really dominated at set piece. They are big men so from a lifting point of view that is a real asset and both of them have the impact round the field, probably Angus is a freak, he is incredibly quick, in some of our testing he was competing with the loosies and backs from a fitness point of view. He is an amazing athlete, so he will give you quality set piece but then he will be all over the park.”
2. Brayden Mitchell (2009)
DR: “We’ve had some quality hookers with Ash Dixon (Blues) and Quentin McDonald (Crusaders) playing Super 15. Brayden (now with the Highlanders) was one of our best performers in 2009. With a strong set piece, he is like a fourth loosie, athletic, combative and with a massive ticker.”
3. Ben Afeaki (2008)
DR: “Ben Afeaki is destructive, he is a very good scrummager but he was menacing without the ball and he carries aggressively. He is a bit of a rock you can build your scrum around. They [Taavao-Matau and Afeaki] are both great value for their respective teams.
4. Liaki Moli (2010)
DR: “I think if you look at Liaki he is very quiet off the field, but has an amazing physical presence on it, he was fantastic for us because he was just so physical. He did this core job really well, but he was all over the park, carrying and hitting rucks. He is willing to do a lot of graft but he has the athletic ability to give you a lot more around the track as well.”
5. Sam Whitelock (2008)
DR: “An amazing athlete, Sam gives you a massive work rate. He has athleticism, is an outstanding aerial player as well. You put all those qualities together and you are going to have trouble leaving him out of the starting line-up in a big game. He’s got a pretty strong rugby pedigree, but it is quite amazing a kid like that could force his way into the All Blacks at such a young age, especially being a forward.”
6. Luke Whitelock (2010 / 2011)
DR: “Luke had a great tournament for us in Argentina and he’s back again this year in Italy, I’m sure he will be the captain. He’s a very good player. He has an outstanding work ethic and great game sense. The type of player coaches love to have in their team. The whole Whitelock family have gone on to play serious footy and Luke has the potential to be the best of them.”
7. Luke Braid (2008)
DR: “He was voted IRB Junior Player of the Year in 2008. He has had limited time in Super Rugby, but he is getting heaps with the Blues at the moment. He is a fantastic player with outstanding continuity skills. That was a real feature of his game with us in 2008. He’s very abrasive, very good on the ball and he’s having a great season.”
8. Nasi Manu (2008)
DR: “You’ve made a pretty good decision there. He’s clearly the best number 8 we’ve taken away. He has a massive work rate, can play the game like a seven, but he’s prepared to do a lot of graft and fight for a lot of the ball on the ground. Great carrying and massive work rate defensively. It would have been tight between Luke Braid and Nasi as probably the biggest contributors to the 2008 team I think. Nasi had a fantastic tournament.
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (2010)
DR: “It would be out of him and Aaron Smith, who is having a great season with the Highlanders behind Jimmy Cowan. The type of game we play revolves around the nine getting to the breakdown quickly and trying to create that high tempo. Aaron would have rivalled Tawera, but based on performances in the tournament, Tawera probably deserves the number one spot. He has a very good distribution game, is physical defensively and is a handful with ball in hand.
10. Aaron Cruden (2009)
DR: “He did a fantastic job leading our team in 2009. Probably on paper we weren’t as strong as the other two years. It was a tight tournament and his leadership was integral in us winning that year. He’s very mature, very demanding, very much a follow-me captain and he really stood up in those big games. I think he’s a wise choice as No. 10. When he gets quick ball in his hand which allows him to challenge and threaten, he is at his best. I obviously know him very well from our time together at Manawatu and we all know his story and what he’s overcome personally. It was very special for us when he became the first All Black to come out of Manawatu for I think something like 18 years, since Christian Cullen. He’s an inspiration for young kids in the Manawatu.”
11. Zac Guildford (2008 / 2009)
DR: “In 09 he was the only guy who had been to a World Cup before, the only returning player from 08. I think he was a step up in 2009, he only scored a couple of tries in 2008 but got eight in his second year. He was another year older, more experienced, more Super Rugby under his belt. He gave us strong leadership and certainly helped all the new guys coming through. He has a massive work rate, the best kick chaser in the business and is a quality finisher. I wasn’t surprised he made the All Blacks so quickly, he had an outstanding NPC when we came home and was certainly the form winger. He’s the leading try scorer in this tournament and he has been playing fantastic rugby, playing with confidence again now with the Crusaders, the confidence he had when he made the All Blacks.”
12. Ryan Crotty (2008)
DR: “Ryan is quote the complete player. He’s been hampered by injuries ever since that tournament, he hasn’t played a lot of rugby but he really impressed me on that tour. He captained our team in one of the games and did a fantastic job. He has the skill set of a 10 but playing one out. He is a very good attacker, very solid defensively and has a great kicking game. He had a fantastic tournament for us. It’s been a bit sad that we haven’t seen so much of him over the past couple of years.”
13. Jackson Willison (2009)
DR: “I think that is a really good combination, Crotty and Willison. It would have been a bit of a tough battle to select them, you could have gone for Winston Stanley because of a strong leadership point of view. Jackson, though, is an absolute professional in everything he does. He was really impressive, strong defensively, and gave us go forward with ball in hand and provided really good service to his wingers.”
14. Julian Savea (2010)
DR: “Julian was voted IRB Junior Player of the Year in 2010. He’s big, he’s strong, evasive and scored a lot of tries, eight I think it was, in Argentina. Julian is a big man, not quite as big as [Jonah] Lomu but he’s very quick. Julian has the ability to score tries the length of the field. I can understand people pointing out the similarities but he’s a pretty determined young man Julian, and keen to cut his own cloth.”
15. Robbie Robinson (2009)
DR: “Robbie has got a real bit of X-Factor about him and really fronted in those big games. We were probably a bit under the pump a little up front from that massive England team [in the final] and the quality strike of our backs was the difference on the day. Robbie was sensational in that tournament. He’s just a great runner in open play and kicks well off both feet and offers a very solid last line of defence. He’s played quite a bit at 10, but I still feel 15 is his best spot.”
Some of the players worthy of a mention who just missed out...
Fly half: “Tyler Bleyendaal did an outstanding job as well when he captained the side last year. He was just an outstanding kicker of the ball, but he has got all the other elements in regard to ability to carry, ability to defend and organise people. Probably not quite as demanding as Aaron, but you have to remember that Aaron had already played NPC going into 2009 so he was probably a little more experienced perhaps. Tyler still hasn’t played NPC but the Crusaders have picked him up, probably because they were a bit worried that others would. He is going to be an outstanding player and he is a clever young man and will get his opportunity soon. The Crusaders obviously have Dan Carter and certainly Tyler will be soaking up the experience and trying to learn as much as he can from him.”
Outside backs: "Certainly an area that we have been strong in every year. We’ve had some fantastic wingers, just about every winger we’ve taken away has gone on to play Super Rugby, so that was quite a difficult selection. If you look back there was Sean Maitland, who had a fantastic tournament in 2008, Kade Poki who is now playing really well for the Highlanders and Andre Taylor has just been outstanding for the Hurricanes this year. Telusa Veainu was another from last year.
Centres: “Shaun Treeby had a great tournament for us, as did Winston Stanley. Charlie Ngatai was another last year. Another good midfield man came home injured in 2008, Mike Harris and he is now starring for the Reds.”
Full backs: “If you look at Trent Renata, he was well organised, a very good player with an excellent kicking game, I suppose probably him and Tyler were the best goalkickers we’ve had. A very good player, but Robbie was electrifying in 09. Tom Marshall last year was outstanding, a different player and really solid in behind, great under high ball, attacks well and had good pace.”
Players who didn’t even make the cut...
“We only pick players from a one-year bracket generally, the idea being that we’ll take 26 players to the World Cup and they’ll get the whole experience and development, and then the following year you pick a fresh 26. We’ve had a couple of exception to that, Zac Guildford was one of those and Luke Whitelock will be another this year.
“Once the team arrives in Italy there will have been more than 100 kids from New Zealand who have been to a World Cup, which has been a lot higher than any of the other sides, so I think that’s been a good policy. The kids are more exposed to that and hopefully it pays dividends at the next level up.
“We have left out some really good players. For example, Israel Dagg was tied up with the New Zealand Sevens team at the time and you’re only allowed to be in one programme. Robbie Fruean, like Dagg an Under 19 champion in 2007, didn’t come away with us because of his heart problem. He has gone on to play some outstanding rugby. He had a massive impact at the Under 19s.
“Tim Nanai-Williams didn’t make last year’s squad and he is in the Chiefs now, John Hardie didn’t make the side in 08 and he is playing at the Highlanders now. There are a number of those sorts of players, but that is what you hope guys do, that they knuckle down and work really hard and get an opportunity. Matt Todd, who impressed for the Crusaders while Richie McCaw was injured, also trialled in 08 and missed out, Luke Braid got that starting spot.
“So some good kids have missed out but they have gone on to do really well.”
On the daunting prospect he has left behind after three titles...
“Mark Anscombe was the assistant coach the last two years and he’s had a big hand in the success of the side through that period and Russell Hilton-Jones was co-coach with me in the first year. They’re going to bring over a pretty talented side again and they won’t be too focused on what’s gone on in the past.
“With every side the boys have wanted to play well for each other and win a title for them, as opposed to the pressure of matching previous teams. They have plenty of internal motivation and competition for places and hopefully that brings out the best in them.
“You can guarantee the team that turns up in Italy will be favourites, regardless of the quality of the other teams. I guess it is just what you are used to when you wear the black jersey, everyone is keen to knock you over.”
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