With the seventh edition of the IRB Junior World Championship set to kick-off in New Zealand in less than a week, we decided to take a brief look back at the previous editions of premier Under 20 age-grade tournament which began in 2008.
New Zealand were simply unstoppable in the new tournament, beating every team they faced in Wales by at least 25 points, including England (38-3) in the final at the Liberty Stadium.
The other teams had no answer to New Zealand’s free-flowing rugby and their success was not really surprising, given that three quarters of the squad had won the Under 19 World Championship in Belfast the previous year when they had been just as dominant.
They conceded just one try and 28 points in six matches, scoring 35 tries and 242 points themselves, to fit England coach Nigel Redman’s assessment that “New Zealand have been an awesome side now for two years.”
Final standings: 1 New Zealand 2 England 3 South Africa 4 Wales 5 Australia 6 France 7 Samoa 8 Argentina 9 Ireland 10 Scotland 11 Italy 12 Canada 13 Tonga 14 Fiji 15 Japan 16 USA (relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2009)
Australia arrived in Japan as arguably favourites to succeed their trans-Tasman rivals as champions and certainly lived up to that billing in the pool stages with some impressive displays. The Baby Blacks, by comparison, hadn’t been able to produce an 80-minute performance.
The two sides met in the semi-finals with pundits expecting an Australian victory. However, when it mattered most, New Zealand produced the performance they had been striving for with Aaron Cruden pulling the strings at fly half to torment the Australian defence.
Heavy rain fell until just before kick-off on finals day but the slippery conditions didn’t upset New Zealand who clicked into gear midway through the first half with Cruden in sublime form again, his two tries in five minutes landing a blow that England never really recovered from.
The tournament – the last to feature 16 teams – proved a huge success with more than 100,000 fans attending the matches across the five venues in Japan, not to mention record broadcast coverage.
Final standings: 1 New Zealand 2 England 3 South Africa 4 Australia 5 France 6 Wales 7 Samoa 8 Ireland 9 Scotland 10 Tonga 11 Argentina 12 Fiji 13 Italy 14 Canada 15 Japan 16 Uruguay (13-16 teams relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2010)
Argentina hosted the third edition of the tournament, one that will be remembered for the manner of New Zealand’s victory over Australia in the final. The rivals had both won their semi-finals convincingly but few predicted the 62-17 score in the title decider following a performance outgoing coach Dave Rennie labelled "pretty close" to perfect.
Both sides had played some great free-flowing rugby along the way but New Zealand were never threatened after Liam Coltman dotted down after just 33 seconds of the final. Tyler Bleyendaal pulled the strings at fly half and the score in no-way flattered them, although Australia also deserve credit for the way they refused to throw in the towel as the scoreboard ticked over.
The tournament also saw a couple of firsts with Ireland captain Rhys Ruddock called up to the senior squad in Australia and the first match to be decided by a kicking competition after Argentina and Wales were locked at 19-19 after sudden-death extra-time. Fernando Luna proved Argentina’s hero with the winning kick after Wales missed a kick at 8-8.
Final standings: 1 New Zealand 2 Australia 3 South Africa 4 England 5 France 6 Argentina 7 Wales 8 Fiji 9 Ireland 10 Scotland 11 Tonga 12 Samoa (Relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2011)
For the third time in four tournaments New Zealand met England in the final and, while the outcome was the same, this was the nearest the Baby Blacks had come to losing on the JWC stage.
England came out in determined mood and barely allowed New Zealand out of their own half in the opening 15 minutes. However, while England were unable to turn their domination into points, New Zealand did just that despite never being able to shake off the challenge from their opponents.
The difference proved to be the boot of Gareth Anscombe who – unlike his England counterpart George Ford – didn’t miss a kick at goal in the Italian city of Padova, ensuring his father’s first tournament as head coach yielded another success story for New Zealand Under 20s.
JWC 2011 also saw the best finishes for France – the sixth team to reach a semi-final – and Fiji with fourth and sixth respectively, although the Fijians did feel the wrath of South Africa on the final day, the Baby Boks frustration at missing out on the semi-finals leading to a 104-17 win.
Final standings: 1 New Zealand 2 England 3 Australia 4 France 5 South Africa 6 Fiji 7 Wales 8 Ireland 9 Argentina 10 Scotland 11 Italy 12 Tonga (Relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012)
Few will forget the atmosphere at Newlands as 35,000 people created a cacophony of noise befitting the final played out by New Zealand and hosts South Africa. The Junior Springboks prevailed 22-16 to the delight of the crowd to deny their counterparts a fifth successive JWC title.
Both teams had suffered a defeat in the pool stages, South Africa stunned by Ireland on day one before New Zealand lost their first ever JWC match – 9-6 to Wales in the Stellenbosch mud on the next match day.
Wales were not the only side making waves in South Africa and were joined in the semi-finals by Argentina who had overcome both Australia and France in the pool stages. New Zealand would avenge that loss to Wales in the semi-finals with Argentina falling to the hosts.
Final standings: 1 South Africa 2 New Zealand 3 Wales 4 Argentina 5 Ireland 6 France 7 England 8 Australia 9 Scotland 10 Samoa 11 Fiji 12 Italy (relegated to IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2013)
In north-west France another first was witnessed as England and Wales met in the first all-northern hemisphere final after overcoming New Zealand and South Africa respectively in the semi-finals, the Welsh ending the Junior Springboks’ title defence hopes in dramatic fashion with a try at the death.
The final proved the proverbial game of two halves. The first belonged to Wales with fly half Sam Davies producing some touches of brilliance to give his side a 15-3 advantage at half-time, although the advantage could, and probably should, have been bigger.
England’s revival began just before the hour mark and there was then little doubt that it would be a case of fourth time lucky in the final, leaving Wales heartbroken at losing a second title to their neighbours at the final hurdle in 2013.
The third place play-off was equalling entertaining with South Africa beating New Zealand, who had lost to England for the first time at age grade level in the semi-finals, in an 11-try thriller. Hosts France also recovered from 22 points down at half-time to beat Argentina to fifth place.
Final standings: 1 England 2 Wales 3 South Africa 4 New Zealand 5 France 6 Argentina7 Australia 8 Ireland 9 Samoa 10 Scotland 11 Fiji 12 USA (relegated to Junior World Rugby Trophy 2014)