JWC graduates show the way forward in 2012

(IRB.COM) Thursday 26 April 2012
 JWC graduates show the way forward in 2012
Leigh Halfpenny exorcised the ghosts of his missed penalty in the RWC 2011 semi final loss to France with the winning kick against Ireland en route to finishing as the Six Nations' top point scorer

In just over a month’s time, the IRB Junior World Championship 2012 will kick off in South Africa with the latest class of Under 20s hoping to follow in the footsteps of more than 110 players who have graduated from the tournament to the Test arena.

Over the coming weeks we will catch up with some of these, including RWC 2011 winner Aaron Cruden, Japan flanker Michael Leitch and the Welsh Grand Slam winning trio of Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies and Sam Warburton.

Ahead of this series of features and videos, we take a look back at the RBS 6 Nations and the impact Junior World Championship graduates had on the 2012 competition, which saw Wales clinch the Grand Slam and Scotland receive the wooden spoon.

No fewer than eight members of the Welsh Grand Slam winning squad cut their teeth on the IRB Junior World Championship stage, the majority of them in 2008 on home soil when Sam Warburton led the young Dragons to their best ever finish of fourth.

Warburton, who also led Wales to a Rugby World Cup semi final for the first time in 24 years in 2011, endured an injury-ravaged Six Nations, but still got to lift the Triple Crown at Twickenham and the trophy at the Millennium Stadium.

The contributions of his former Under 20 teammates were just as telling with Leigh Halfpenny snatching victory at the death with a penalty against Ireland in Dublin and Scott Williams racing away to score the Triple Crown clinching try at Twickenham.

Halfpenny would finish as the leading point scorer with 66 points, although only just from England newcomer Owen Farrell, one of 11 players with JWC experience to make their Test debuts in the Championship, who kicked 63 points.

The smallest member of the Welsh backline, Halfpenny notched another milestone in the last match against France, his conversion of Alex Cuthbert’s try bringing up the 1,000th Test point scored by a Junior World Championship graduate.

Welsh history makers

JWC graduates scored 181 points in the Championship, including 12 tries and some of them crucial like Scott Williams’ effort against England and Giovanbattista Venditti’s try against Scotland to ensure Italy avoided the wooden spoon.

Only one member of the Welsh octet made their debut in 2012 – scrum half Rhys Webb coming off the bench against Italy in round four – with Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric and Lloyd Williams the others to write their names in Welsh rugby history.

Scotland fielded seven of the 30 Junior World Championship graduates to take to the field in the Six Nations with Richie Gray, David Denton and new cap Stuart Hogg, who provided a real spark to the backline after his debut against Wales in round two.

Hogg was one of four new graduates for Scotland in their wooden spoon campaign, coach Andy Robinson giving debuts to wing Lee Jones, prop Matt Scott and JWC 2011 captain and fly half Duncan Weir.

Farrell was the only new graduate to start all five matches in the Championship, the son of former England international Andy displaying a maturity well beyond his 20 years whether wearing the 10 or 12 shirt as he kicked 63 points.

Jordan-Turner Hall, a JWC 2008 runner-up with England, made his debut off the bench in round one against Scotland but with Farrell wearing the inside centre jersey his opportunities to wear the Red Rose were limited.

New era for France

The most prolific try scorer among the new graduates was Venditti, the Italian wing not only scoring the key try against Scotland in Rome, but also touching down against England along with his former U20 teammate Tommaso Benvenuti.

Had Italy solved their perennial problem of a reliable kicker these tries could have been significant in Azzurri history as part of a first ever win over England in their history, instead of a 19-15 loss in round two.

Italy also gave a debut to Luca Morisi, who played for the Azzurrini in their IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy success of 2010 which earned them a return to the JWC stage, as a replacement in that loss to England.

Forcing your way into a side that reached the RWC 2011 Final only months earlier was no easy prospect for Yoann Maestri, but the Toulouse second row got the nod from new France coach Philippe Saint-Andre and became a regular fixture.

Jean-Marcelin Buttin would become the last graduate to make their Test debut in the Six Nations with his appearance off the bench in the loss to Wales, the full back having caught the eye with his attacking play at JWC 2011 as France reached a first semi final.

Ireland, like France, fielded only two JWC graduates during the Six Nations, Conor Murray the starting scrum half until a new injury forced him to miss the last two matches, and former U20 captain Peter O’Mahony making his Test debut against Italy.

It could have been three, but Dave Kearney – the younger brother of full back Rob – was not called off the bench in the opening loss to Wales and will be hoping that isn’t his only experience of Test rugby.

With the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Top 5 about to get under way and Japan coach Eddie Jones set to blood a raft of new players, followed by a packed month of June internationals, the number of JWC graduates should continue to rise in the coming months.