The IRB Junior World Championship is a proven breeding ground for the future stars of Test rugby, the chance to make a name for themselves against the best Under 20 players in the world and soak up all the experiences on and off the field to help them continue their development.
An incredible total of 96 players have graduated from the Junior World Championship to the Test stage over the last three years, the majority of them from the inaugural tournament in Wales in 2008 but also a handful from last year’s showcase in Argentina.
These 96 players have amassed nearly 500 caps between them, a remarkable statistic which shows the talented youngsters that have graced this tournament and the willingness of coaches to give youth a chance on the international stage.
Robbie Deans is a prime example with his Wallabies side build around youth with eight others having followed the first Australian graduate – David Pocock – into the national side, with five others having toured Europe but only played in midweek matches.
Pocock boasts the most caps of any graduate with 30 since his debut against New Zealand in November 2008, less than five months after captaining Australia’s Under 20s to fifth place in Wales.
First ever graduate
Quade Cooper and Will Genia, his teammates that year, are the next best with 24 and 22, followed by wing Leigh Halfpenny – who became Wales’ youngest British & Irish Lion for 40 years in 2009 – on 19 and another Welsh dragon, Sam Warburton on 15.
Pocock and another young Wallaby in Kurtley Beale last year also became the first Junior World Championship graduates to be nominated for the prestigious IRB Player of the Year accolade in 2010, an award ultimately claimed by All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
The honour of being the first JWC graduate though belongs to Alatasi Tupou, who started at full back in Samoa’s 101-14 loss to New Zealand in September 2008. His JWC 2008 teammates Roysiu Tolufale and Maselino Paulino came off the bench that day in New Plymouth.
The most recent graduate is centre Conor Trainer, who marked his Canada debut with a try in their 34-18 defeat of Russia on Wednesday in the Churchill Cup. Tonga wing Vili Iongi had an even more impressive debut, scoring four tries in Tonga’s 44-13 defeat of USA in the other Churchill Cup match.
Since Samoa became the first to promote a JWC graduate, all 17 countries to have played in the key IRB Age Grade tournament have seen a player progress to the Test arena, a milestone achieved when Rhys Ruddock – Ireland’s captain in Argentina – was called up mid tournament to join the senior side and made his debut against Australia.
Pumas and Wallabies lead the way
The Irish back row is not the only player to feature at JWC 2010 who has made a rapid rise to the Test arena, South Africa’s Patrick Lambie, Michael Toloke of Tonga, Wales’ Toby Faletau and Scott Williams and Argentine quartet Tomas Baravalle, Tomas de la Vega, Fernando Luna and Ramiro Moyano also making their senior debuts.
Ruddock, the son of current Ireland Under 20 coach Mike, is still on a solitary cap as Ireland’s only JWC graduate, the fewest by any country. Compare that to Argentina, who handed seven graduates their debut in last month’s South American Championship match with Uruguay alone.
This glut of debutants has swelled Argentina’s tally to 17, a remarkable number given it was only on 21 May 2010 that Los Pumas capped their first JWC graduates with six in one match, also against Uruguay in the South American Championship.
Argentina’s 17 graduates though can only boast 29 caps between them, one fewer than Pocock has amassed for the Wallabies himself over the last two and a half years, and the fifth highest tally among the 17 nations.
Australian graduates have accumulated the most caps between them with 120 – just under a quarter of the total – and double that of the next best Wales (60) with Canada, who only played in the first two tournaments – third with 44 caps.
Who will be the 100th?
New Zealand, the only side to lift the distinctive JWC trophy, have also seen three players progress to the All Blacks side, a real achievement given the success of the Rugby World Cup 2011 hosts over the last couple of years.
The first to follow this path was wing Zac Guildford – one of only two players to collect two JWC winners’ medals – with his debut against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in November 2009. The JWC all-time top try-scorer with 10, Guildford has since been followed by his 2009 captain Aaron Cruden and 2008 teammate Sam Whitelock.
New Zealand’s quest for a fourth successive Junior World Championship success will begin against Italy in Treviso on Friday, a nation whose most recent graduates Tommaso Benvenuti and Edoardo Gori have recently been selected in their provisional squad for Rugby World Cup 2011.
Only time will tell how many graduates will grace the Rugby World Cup 2011 stage in New Zealand later this year, but the race is certainly on to claim the milestone of the 100th player to progress from the Junior World Championship to the Test arena.
With 14 players having followed this path in the last month alone, we shouldn’t have long to wait.