Denis Simplikevich will never forget his time at Rugby World Cup 2011, the 20-year-old marking his Test debut with a try against Ireland and then touching down in his only other appearance against former champions Australia.
The wing admitted to feeling like he “was in a different world” when he stepped on to the Rotorua International Stadium pitch against the Irish on 25 September, hardly surprising given just four months earlier he was playing for Russia’s Under 20s at the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy.
One of the stand-out players from the tournament in Georgia, Simplikevich wore the full back jersey in all four of Russia’s matches, scoring five tries – three of them against USA – to help his side finish sixth overall.
Suggestions that he was an outside bet to make Russia’s senior squad for their Rugby World Cup debut were merely that, the player himself admitting he “didn’t think at all I would be playing at the Rugby World Cup” back then.
That thought only came later when called to Sochi for a national camp, but even then Simplikevich still found it hard to believe he’d made the cut for the final 30-man squad, until that is his own face was smiling down at him at the launch.
In a different world
“At first I didn’t even believe it, that I’d made the (30-man) squad. When they showed the selection video I didn’t even notice myself, I only noticed myself when they showed the photos of the team,” Simplikevich admitted on the day he was named to start against Australia in Russia's final Pool C match.
“I had a really big desire to play and I really wanted to play in that game (against Ireland). My first feelings (on my debut) actually started when for the first time I stepped on the pitch and started singing our anthem. I just felt I was in a different world.
"I hadn’t played with such a great attendance and everyone supporting rugby, not just one team.”
Simplikevich’s debut ensured a Rugby World Cup 2011 milestone with Russia becoming the last of the 20 participating teams to play either an IRB Junior World Championship or IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy graduate.
The first had been Tonga wing Viliame Iongi in the opening match against hosts New Zealand. Iongi, a graduate of JWC 2009, was followed on to the Eden Park pitch that evening by All Blacks replacement Sam Whitelock, a member of New Zealand’s first JWC–winning team of 2008.
The most recent graduate to grace the Rugby World Cup stage was Zac Guildford, a two-time JWC winner and joint all-time try scorer who announced his arrival with a bang, scoring four tries in New Zealand’s 79-15 victory over Canada on Sunday.
Guildford’s appearance took the total number of graduates to have played in the pool stages of RWC 2011 to 56 – 47 of them from the Junior World Championship arena and nine from its sister tournament, the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
One of them, Wales’ Sam Warburton, has become the youngest ever RWC captain. He also captained his country at the inaugural Junior World Championship in Wales in 2008, just as another flanker vital to their nation’s hopes at RWC 2011, David Pocock, did for Australia.
They could be joined by Aaron Cruden, who led New Zealand to the 2009 crown in Japan and was duly named IRB Junior Player of the Year, the fly half having been called up to the All Blacks squad on Sunday as an injury replacement for Dan Carter.
Two others in that total of 56 – scrum halves Joe Simpson and Jeremy Sua – will, like Simplikevich, have a RWC 2011 match for their Test debut, having come off the bench in England’s win over Georgia and Samoa’s loss to Wales.
They could be joined by Jean Marc Doussain, France’s captain at JWC 2011 who replaced the injured David Skrela but is yet to be named in a match-day squad. France also have Morgan Parra in their ranks, although he had made his Test debut before JWC 2008 so is not included in the 56.
Twenty-eight Junior World Championship graduates – plus Doussain – are spread across the RWC 2011 quarter-finalists, but the question still remains, who will be the first to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup on 23 October?