The World Rugby U20 Championship begins in Manchester on Tuesday evening, and New Zealand – one of Ireland’s opponents in Pool A – are being backed by many to retain their title. This year’s Baby Blacks squad is slightly younger and less experienced than the 2015 side, but the high level of talent from 1 to 15 ensures that they will be in the running for the trophy when the tournament reaches its final stages in just under three weeks’ time.
The side will be captained by Leni Apisai from hooker, the most experienced player in the squad: he has played ITM Cup rugby for Wellington in the 2014 and 2015 seasons, as well as gaining some Super Rugby game-time in 2016 for the Hurricanes due to the injuries of Dane Coles and Motu Matu’u. In the front row he will most likely be working alongside Ayden Johnstone at loosehead and Alex Fidow at tighthead. Johnstone is a solid scrummager and a capable athlete who contributes well in open play, while Fidow – a New Zealand Schoolboys standout last year – has the potential to be one of the tournament’s stars with ball in hand. He is a destructive runner with impressive footwork and handling skills for his size, and was arguably New Zealand’s most effective forward ball-carrier in the Oceania Rugby Championship matches against Australia at the beginning of May:
He shows excellent work rate in attack, but at this level it is at the set-piece and without the ball that he will be tested. Fidow will be looking to keep Sean Paranihi and Sosefo Kautai out of the 3 shirt, while Shaun Stodart is the second loosehead in the squad; hooker Asafo Aumua rounds out the front row cover.
Hamish Dalzell – a member of the winning 2015 squad – returns after missing the Oceania Rugby Championship, and will look to shore up a second row that had some issues in the lineout in those two games. He will likely be partnered on the loosehead side by Waikato’s Quinten Strange. They will be backed up by Isaia Walker-Leawere – a powerful athlete who represented NZ Schools in 2015 – and Fin Hoeata, brother of former All Black Jarrad; interestly, both players were listed in the official squad announcement as lock/back row hybrids. This seems to reflect a clear developmental policy in New Zealand rugby: it mirrors the presence of two back rows and no specialist lock on the bench in last year’s U20 final, and the All Blacks’ deployment of Victor Vito (a natural back row forward) as second row cover during last year’s World Cup.
The second returning member of the 2015 squad, Mitchell Jacobson, will likely start at openside flanker. A strong breakdown operator and an excellent defender, he may form a partnership with brother Luke who is in line to start at 6; the younger Jacobson would provide another lineout option at the blindside, and like his brother defends strongly. This was a try-saving tackle from the last few minutes of Game 2 against Australia which showed his ability to track and tackle in space:
Between them, the pair should be able to emulate the work without the ball of last year’s stand-out 7 Blake Gibson; however, the fate of this New Zealand side may well come down to whether they can replicate the devastating presence which Akira Ioane provided at number 8. North Harbour’s Hapakuki Moala-Liava’a brings ITM Cup experience, but has struggled with injury so far in 2016; his competition for the position is Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, another superlative athlete from the 2015 NZ Schools team:
In this clip (from the 2015 Schools International) he chases a box kick with Walker-Leawere, and the pair effect a turnover with their strength over the ball before Mikaele-Tu’u streaks up the left touchline. The flanker (6) tracking his inside here is Dalton Papali’i, the final back row forward in the 2016 squad. Similar to the Jacobson brothers, his game is defence-oriented, and head coach Scott Robertson may look to carry both specialist 8s in the matchday squad along with one of Hoeata and Walker-Leawere on the bench for impact.
From scrum-half, Sam Nock – who has represented the Blues in Super Rugby already this season – will look to get an exciting back-line firing with his strong passing game off both hands:
Importantly, he also provides a threat breaking from the base of the ruck, and he excels at spotting opportunities to push the Baby Blacks further over the gainline:
Stephen Perofeta performed admirably at fly-half in the two games against Australia – his ability to take the ball to the line and find a weak shoulder was very impressive – but the return of TJ Va’a from injury likely means that he will be relegated to second choice. Va’a (son of former Samoan international Earl) has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons, but he signed a professional contract with Wellington straight out of Scots College in 2014, and is a member of the Hurricanes wider training group.
In the midfield, Jordie Barrett stood out in the games on the Gold Coast. He offers a secondary kicking option from inside centre, while his 1.94m frame and footwork into contact make him a threat on the gain line and in New Zealand’s offloading game:
Here he shows an impressive outside break, but he also served as an option cutting back against the grain off set-piece ball and at short range. His partner will be Otago’s Sio Tomkinson, another powerful attacker. However, the way Australia chose to attack him in the outside centre channel showed how the New Zealand defence could potentially be unlocked. He is strong in the tackle but at times lacks discipline in his decision-making and positioning:
The defensive assuredness of Anton Lienert-Brown was key to New Zealand shutting down England’s attack in the 2015 final, but in the event of a rematch in the knock-out rounds the home nation could see this channel as a potential weakness to exploit in attack.
Robertson pulled off a serious coup in securing the presence of Shaun Stevenson and Jordan Trainor in his final competition squad. Stevenson has featured for the Chiefs in Super Rugby, while Trainor has been part of the Blues wider training group; the Waikato team-mates will likely take two of the starting positions in the back three. Stevenson’s running threat is well known, but in Trainor New Zealand have one of the tournament’s most skilled and creative backline players:
Canterbury’s Caleb Makene provides cover at full-back, while the final starting spot will be filled by either Jonah Lowe or Malo Tuitama. Both players can also cover the centre, versatility which probably helped them take the final places in the squad ahead of Mason Emerson, who performed very well in the Oceania Rugby Championship and has some ITM Cup experience for Hawkes’ Bay. Lowe shows signs of being a strong positional defender on the left wing, and combines this with work rate on the kick chase and good skill levels. This all-round game means that he will likely shade the rawer Tuitama to the final wing berth. A tactic they used in the Australia games was having the blindside winger carrying at first receiver off set-piece ball, in order to keep all three midfield backs alive to attack wider channels on the second phase. Lowe in particular did well in this role, and it will be interesting to see whether they elect to use it over the next few weeks so that they can make better use of Jordie Barrett’s playmaking ability at 12.
The Baby Blacks kick off against Georgia on Tuesday evening, before facing Ireland on Saturday 11th and Wales on Wednesday 15th to round out the group stages. In the first round of games on Tuesday, two other fixtures to look out for are France vs. Argentina and Australia vs. Scotland. Australia beat New Zealand for the first time at U20 level in the second game of the Oceania series, and bring an exciting backline which includes a couple of centres with Super Rugby experience in Sione Tuipulotu and Campbell Magnay, while Scotland have one of their most talented sides ever in this competition. Two to watch for France are centre Damian Penaud of Clermont Auvergne and scrum-half Antoine Dupont of Castres; in Argentina’s side, fly-half Domingo Miotti gained senior experience in the Americas Rugby Championship earlier this year and fullback/wing Bautista Delguy has already represented Argentina in the 7s World Series.