Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle for any player, the chance to test himself against the best in the world. For some, New Zealand 2011 will be their fourth tournament. For others it will be their first and they could be forgiven for pinching themselves to believe they will grace this showpiece event.
Definitely falling into the latter category would be Ireland scrum half Conor Murray and his Welsh counterpart Lloyd Williams, France number 8 Raphaël Lakafia and Italy hooker Tommaso D’Apice, who made their Test debuts only this month but made enough of an impact to earn a place in their countries' RWC 2011 squad.
The same is true of Joe Simpson, a scrum half given his opportunity after Danny Care damaged a toe in England’s warm-up match against Wales in Cardiff and now in line to become his country’s first player to make his Test debut at a Rugby World Cup since Joe Worsley in 1999.
This quintet, though, have more in common than just being surprise inclusions in their respective RWC 2011 squads. All have come through the International Rugby Board’s premier age-grade competition, the IRB Junior World Championship, en route to the Test arena.
They are not alone in treading what has become a familiar path, the Under 20 tournament living up to its intended goal of preparing future stars of world rugby for the international stage. Nearly 110 players have graduated from the JWC to play for their senior national side since its inauguration in 2008.
Forty seven of these graduates have made the cut for RWC 2011, with 15 of the 20 participating countries having at least one in their ranks. Samoa – the first to cap a graduate in September 2008 – can swell this number to 16 if Jeremy Sua, who played for Australia at JWC 2008, makes his senior debut in New Zealand.
Pocock leading the way
Of the remaining nations, Georgia, Namibia and Romania have players who have graduated from the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, the Championship’s sister tournament. This leaves only Russia, who will also fulfil this criteria if Denis Simplikevich makes his debut. The exciting young full back has been a star of this year’s JWRT in Georgia.
Some graduates have inevitably enjoyed more success than others, and while some have made only one or two appearances for their national teams, others are already established names and among the first on the team list for any international.
The most capped graduate to date is David Pocock, the flanker having amassed 34 caps since his debut against New Zealand in November 2008, just five months after leading Australia to fifth place in the inaugural Junior World Championship in Wales.
Pocock is already regarded as one of the world’s leading flankers and, with fellow Wallaby Kurtley Beale, became the first JWC graduate nominated for the prestigious IRB Player of the Year award in 2010, losing out to another renowned seven in All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
The 23-year-old is one of 10 players to graduate to the Wallabies under coach Robbie Deans – seven of whom are in the RWC 2011 squad – and with his JWC 2008 teammates Quade Cooper and Will Genia also nearing 30 caps, it is not surprising that Australians account for a quarter of the 600-plus Test appearances by JWC graduates.
Another flanker making a name for himself on the international stage is Sam Warburton, the Welshman who led their Under 20 side in 2008 and now spearheads their RWC 2011 challenge as Wales’ youngest World Cup captain and their second-youngest in history, behind only the legendary Gareth Edwards.
Future in safe hands
Warburton is one of seven graduates in the Welsh RWC 2011 squad – five others remain at home – with teammate Leigh Halfpenny’s rise even more meteoric. In the space of 12 months, the wing went from the Under 20s to become his country’s youngest British and Irish Lion for more than 40 years.
The record for the most JWC graduates in their squad for New Zealand 2011 belongs to Australia and Canada with eight. Among Canada's eight is fly half Nathan Hirayama, who, at 23, is attending his second World Cup, having been part of the Canucks’ squad in 2007 without taking the field.
The majority of the 47 graduates – who boast more than 430 caps among them – played in the inaugural JWC in 2008, including Scotland star Richie Gray, Wales centre Jonathan Davies, Japan flanker Michael Leitch and All Blacks Sam Whitelock and Zac Guildford, a two-time champion and the joint leading try scorer in JWC history with 10.
However, there are also three who were involved in the 2010 edition in Argentina in Springbok utility back Patrick Lambie, one of the tournament’s standout players, and Welsh duo Toby Faletau and Scott Williams. The Welshmen made their debuts against the Barbarians in June, two of 12 graduates to make their first appearances so far in 2011.
These players may be newcomers to the international stage but that is not to say they haven’t already left their mark. New Zealand will not underestimate the threat of Viliame Iongi in the RWC 2011 opening match on 9 September. The Tongan wing boasts a record of seven tries in six Tests, four of them on his debut against USA in the Churchill Cup.
Rugby's future appears in safe hands with graduate numbers expected to increase significantly as sides rebuild for RWC 2015. Before then the question to be answered is which Junior World Championship graduate will be the first to get his hands on the coveted Webb Ellis Cup?