Treading familiar path from JWC to Test arena

(IRB.COM) Friday 3 February 2012
 Treading familiar path from JWC to Test arena
Owen Farrell has made a swift rise from Under 20s to the Test arena

The pathway from Junior World Championship to the Test arena is already well trodden with more than 110 players having followed it in the last four years, the most recent being Australian centre Ben Tapuai who made his debut in their post RWC 2011 encounter with Wales last December.

Tapuai, who played in the inaugural JWC in 2008, will lose his mantle as the latest graduate on Saturday when Italy wing Giovanbattista Venditti becomes the first of 2012 in the RBS Six Nations opener with France at the Stade de France.

Venditti will quickly be usurped by Lee Jones and Owen Farrell in the day’s second match between the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield, the latter still only 20 years of age and having played in JWC 2011 when England again suffered final heartbreak against New Zealand.

Farrell, though, will not be the first player to graduate from JWC 2011 to the Test arena, a mantle already claimed by Jean-Marc Doussain, the French half back having come off the bench for his Test debut in the Rugby World Cup 2011 Final.

The number of new JWC graduates could actually reach seven by the end of the weekend with four others named on the bench, two of them for Ireland in former U20 captain Peter O’Mahony and Dave Kearney.

Inspirational figures

Kearney, called onto the bench after Keith Earls withdrew from the squad on Friday due to his baby daughter being ill in hospital, is the younger brother of full back Rob and was one of the standout players in the Irish Wolfhounds' 23-17 loss to England Saxons last weekend.

The other potential newcomers are Jordan Turner-Hall, the Harlequins centre named on the England bench, and French forward Yoann Maestri, both of whom played in the inaugural Junior World Championship in Wales in 2008.

If Maestri takes to the Stade de France pitch it will ensure that each of the six nations will have played a JWC graduate on the Championship’s opening weekend with a number playing a key role in their respective teams.

None more so than Sam Warburton as Wales’ inspirational young captain, continuing in the role he occupied at RWC 2011 when the Dragons reached the semi finals for the first time since 1987. Warburton is one of four JWC graduates in the Welsh starting line-up, the others being number 8 Toby Faletau, centre Jonathan Davies and full back Leigh Halfpenny, who went from JWC 2008 to a British & Irish Lions tour in less than a year.

Three other graduates – Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams and Scott Williams – have made the Wales bench for their encounter with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, a repeat of the RWC 2011 quarter final won 22-10 by the Welsh.

Waiting in the wings

Ireland only have one graduate in their starting XV, but Conor Murray has quickly established himself as the first-choice scrum half since making his debut in the RWC warm up matches last August, edging out Eoin Reddan and Tomas O’Leary.

Another scrum half making waves on the international stage is Ben Youngs, the England international becoming the first JWC graduate to score a RWC try with his match-winner against Argentina in Pool B.

Youngs is joined in the England starting XV by prop Alex Corbisiero, while Scotland will look to their own graduates to make an impact against the Auld Enemy in second row Richie Gray and number 8 David Denton.

The numbers of Scottish graduates could swell significantly in the months to come if the eight players with Junior World Championship appearances who will turn out for Scotland A against the England Saxons on Friday evening. England Saxons will themselves be captained again by James Gaskell, a losing finalist at JWC 2009 in Japan.

Italy’s new coach Jacques Brunel has kept faith in young backs Edoardo Gori and former U20 captain Tommaso Benvenuti, who will start at scrum half and centre against France, with fellow graduates Simone Favaro and Tommaso D’Apice on the bench.