Forty years of age grade growth in Europe
By Chris Thau
The 48 matches of the annual Under 18 Justin Bridou European Championship, held over the Easter week in the Cote d’Azur area of France – that is the town of Toulon and the surrounding Var region – produced a festival of rugby of varying styles, standards and intensity in the four divisions of the tournament, as well as a suitable scene for the celebration of 40 years of international age grade rugby on the continent.
FIRA-AER, the largest of the International Rugby Board’s six Regional Associations, have pioneered age grade rugby tournaments since 1969, when the first European Under 19 competition was launched in Spain with its seven participants.
France duly won that tournament with Morocco, at the time a member of the European federation, finishing in the silver medal position, the highest ranking for an African nation until 1994 when South Africa won the Under 19 title for the first time.
The decision by FIRA to make the tournament an annual event has contributed more than anything else to the success of the competition, as well as to the steady development of the Game in Europe.
Continental nations identified first the Under 19 and now the Under 18 age grade as a key developmental stage in their elite identification programme.
Interestingly enough the finalists of the 2009 event were France, with four wins in six tournaments, and England, with two titles, have dominated the final stages of the Championship since 2004, when the Under 18s became the recognised age-grade in Europe.
However Belgium (twice), the Netherlands and Poland also have their name on the winner’s shield for the years leading up to 2004, when the Under 18 tournament was just a developmental competition for the aspiring Unions.
The logistics for this mammoth tournament involving 1,000 players and officials playing nearly 50 matches at nine venues are simply enormous and the FIRA-AER team of Jean Claude Baque and the Organising Committee of Cote d’Azur led by President Henri Mondino have done wonders to keep the tournament on course.
The 32 participating teams were divided into four pools or divisions of eight teams, graded from the top tier of Division A to Division D and operating on a promotion-relegation basis.
Each team played three matches, with the winners of first round progressing to their Divisional semi finals and the others going into the playoffs structure. This is why winning the first match is so important here. The four pools operate on promotion-relegation basis, with the winning team elevated to the Division above and the bottom one relegated to the Division below for the following year’s tournament.
Promotion and relegation
In the Division D final a fired up Luxemburg defeated Croatia 24-19 to earn the coveted promotion and replace Austria, who drop down from Division C after losing the seventh place playoff 12-8 to Latvia.
Meanwhile Armenia, featuring several players of Armenian descent residing in France, defeated Israel 25-10 to finish third in Division D, while Moldova, unlucky to lose their first match 24-22 against Croatia, defeated Bosnia & Herzegovina 45-14.
In a fast and furious final to determine the Division C winner, the Czech Republic triumphed 27-21 over Sweden – who had only reached the final on tries scored after a 17-17 draw with Hungary – and will therefore replace the bottom side from Division B, which turned out to be Switzerland following their 66-0 loss to Lithuania.
Hungary bounced back well from their semi final disappointment to beat Bulgaria 15-0 in the third place playoff, while Denmark overcame Serbia 33-24 to finish fifth in the Division.
Portugal had managed to glide past Spain 15-14 in the Division B semi final, thanks to a last minute drop goal from Rodrigo Figueiredo, but were unable to reproduce their act of escapism against the cast-iron defence of Germany, going down 11-3 in a hard and spectacular encounter.
Germany will therefore play in the top tier next year, replacing Italy who lost the seventh place playoff 18-3 against Georgia and must therefore compete in Division B next year.
In the top Division, both England and Italy opted to send their second string Under 18 sides to France as they had committed themselves to an Under 18 Festival in Parma, Italy, along with Scotland, Wales and the Irish Schools.
Ireland were represented in Toulon by their Under 18 Clubs selection and finished third, having bounced back from a 7-0 loss to England in the semi final to beat Romania 51-10.
France had opted out of the Parma Festival and as a result were represented by their first string, which in the end may have made the difference between success and failure in a highly competitive blockbusting final against England that ended 20-19 in the defending champions’ favour.
The rumour has it that both Scotland and Wales are considering joining the 10th FIRA-AER Under 18 tournament next year.
Overall, the playing and coaching standards have gone up considerably throughout Europe, which according to Tournament Director and IRB Regional Development Manager for Europe Michel Arpaillange is a direct result of the work undertaken by FIRA-AER at age grade levels throughout the continent.
Romania, who were coached by two former internationals in Mihai Bucos and Laurentiu Constantin, did well to finish fourth and showed glimpses of the potential that made them one of the up and coming nations of the 1980s. However, unforced errors, mostly in attack, denied them the opportunity to build on their opening 27-13 defeat of Italy.
Belgium were another side to surprise the pundits and potentially also themselves by securing a fifth place finish, bouncing back from a heavy opening loss to eventual winners France to beat Italy and then an athletic and enthusiastic Russia.
Similarly Germany, the winners of Division B, have some very capable youngsters within their ranks, including the abrasive, hard running number 8 Timo Vollenkemper, the rangy flanker and captain Dustin Dobravsky – who had paid for his own flights from Canada where he is a student to France in order to be able to play for his country – and full back Bastian Himmer, the youngest member of the legendary Himmer clan, whose father Frank and uncles Klaus, Volker, Jens and Carstens all played for Germany.
Final to savour
France and England produced a final of such pace and intensity that it left the cheering public at the Mayol Stadium utterly exhausted. For a while, two French tries in succession, ignited by the sizzling runs of their outstanding captain and fly half Jean-Marc Doussain of Toulouse Academy, looked as if they were enough to put England to the sword.
However, the character of the English team shone through and ably led by their captain Mike Wilcox, they fought back with a vengeance. A brilliant try by their centre sensation Sam Stanley, nephew of former All Black Joe Stanley, and a couple of penalties brought England to within a point of the battling French, who were making huge efforts to repulse the relentless English attacks.
Despite their brave efforts England failed to turn pressure into points, while the exhausted French maintained both their discipline and composure to survive the onslaught.
“I am really proud of this team. They have played their hearts out and would have deserved to win,” England coach Paul Mullan said afterwards.
His French counterpart Sébastien Dupoux, though, begged to differ: “The boys were outstanding. They absorbed the enormous pressure and managed to finish the game on top. They are true champions.”
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