The waiting will finally be over on Wednesday when the IRB Junior World Championship 2013 kicks off in France with all 12 teams eager to get off to a winning start in the prestigious Under 20 tournament.
Losing the opening match is not the end of the world as South Africa proved last year in claiming a first title after defeat by Ireland on day one, but it does put a team in the last chance saloon with any further slip ups meaning the end of any title aspirations.
South Africa will begin their title defence against the USA, who return to the JWC stage for the first time since the inaugural event in 2008 on the back of beating Japan in a thrilling final to win the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy on home soil last year.
The two sides have met only once before with the Baby Boks running out emphatic 108-18 winners in Wrexham and will be favourites to make a winning start to their title defence at Stade Henri Desgrange in La Roche-sur-Yon, but USA captain Tom Bliss admits his side are relishing the challenge.
“It is going to be a very tough first game but one which the lads are relishing and looking forward to,” admitted the scrum half. “We are not scared of the opposition, we are here to play and compete and hopefully it should be a good game.
A new adventure for France
“It is not the easiest of pools but we are going to make the most of it, we are going to relish every single game, try not to take a backward step and we are thoroughly looking forward to playing each of the nations.”
The undoubted highlight of round one will be the other Pool A match between England and hosts France at the same venue, an encounter regardless of the level that is referred to as ‘Le Crunch’ by the French media.
England were convincing 40-10 winners over France in the Under 20 Six Nations earlier in the year, but both sides have been quick to point out that encounter will count for nothing when the sides run out in La Roche-sur-Yon at 18:45 local time.
“For us, this is really the start of a new adventure. We do not think of the previous match, the team has worked really hard over the last few weeks,” admitted France coach Didier Retière.
“This is the perfect match to start the competition. It will be a true test which will allow us to assess our level. The players really want to show their talent and against an opponent like England, it’s always a great match, it is difficult but it will right away give us a taste of the JWC.”
Familiar weight of expectation
Captain Paul Jedrasiak echoed this sentiment: “This is a special match. First of all because it’s England and even at our age there is a great rivalry between us, and then because we lost comprehensively in England and did not play well.
“We see this match as a major international game, in fact we’ve been thinking of it for the last two weeks! We are preparing well for revenge and to avoid the small errors we made last time.”
His counterpart Jack Clifford added: “I think it is going to be a completely different team and you are playing France in France with their home crowd, they are the host nation so it will be completely different.”
England have won their only two previous encounters on the JWC stage, the most recent a 33-18 win in the 2011 semi-finals, so France will be hoping it is a case of third time lucky as they bid to become the first northern hemisphere team to win the Under 20 title.
VIDEO: Commentator Wyn Gruffydd previews day one of JWC 2013 in France
In Pool B, four-time winners New Zealand face Fiji in their opening match after traditional rivals Australia tackle Ireland at Stade de la Rabine in Vannes with captain Ardie Savea admitting the usual weight of expectation will be on their shoulders.
“There is always a big expectation of us New Zealand boys to win the trophy, I guess we will take it game by game, every team is getting better and the boys will just take it step by step, game by game.”
Australia finished only eighth last year and are determined to be among the title challengers this year, although they are certainly not going to be underestimating the threat of Ireland.
“They had a strong performance in the Six Nations and we know they are going to be solid around the park and really tight in the forwards and they will really put it to us for the full 80 minutes,” admitted captain Curtis Browning.
“The boys are just keen to get out there and rip in.”
Underdogs or favourites?
Pool C features two of the 2012 semi-finalists in Wales and Argentina, two teams who will expect to be in the mix again, although Welsh coach Danny Wilson expects the battle to reach the semi-finals will be even hotter than last year.
“I think it is going to be a fiercely contested tournament again, some good rugby been played already by sides in terms of through the Six Nations and warm-up games and I think there are some very competitive tough pools ahead and I'm looking forward to it,” insisted Wilson, who guided Wales to their best ever finish of third last year.
“It’s a very tough pool, Samoa are physical, Scotland will be a better side from the Six Nations and more time together they have had recently and Argentina have obviously beaten the champions twice in recent fixtures, so a very tough pool but one we are definitely aiming to come out of.”
Argentina’s series win over the Baby Boks in April – and with seven of their starting line-up against Scotland having already made their Test debuts for the Pumas – have them among the genuine title contenders.
However captain Felipe Ezcurra insisted at the official launch that his side were “not underdogs but not favourites either” and that “we don’t really have objectives, we just want to play the best rugby that we can and do the best that we can.”
Inspiring new audiences
Whatever happens on day one, the stage is set for the future stars of world rugby to showcase their talents and perhaps, as IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset says, stake a claim for a place at Rugby World Cup 2015.
“The IRB Junior World Championship has grown to become one of the most important events on the global Rugby calendar,” said Lapasset. “As a brand, it continues to reach, engage and inspire new audiences around the world through its winning blend of exciting and open rugby and its celebration of Rugby’s character-building values.
“As a development platform, the IRB Junior World Championship does not just provide the global stage on which the future stars of Rugby can showcase their talent, but it also prepares the next generation of top coaches and referees while delivering an academy for important educational matters such as anti-doping and match-fixing to prepare our players for the future.
“The IRB Junior World Championship story is one of success, fun, and preparation. I am sure that the class of 2013 will entertain, that the event will be superbly run, that the fans will have fun and that we will see some of the players who will go on to star at Rugby World Cup 2015 in England.”
Seventeen matches will be streamed live on the IRB website during the Junior World Championship ... click here for more information on which matches and where you can also watch the tournament on television around the world.