I have recently returned from eight weeks in camp with the Junior Wallabies, the last four of which we have been based in Mantova, Northern Italy for the World Rugby U20 Championship. After a nine day training camp at Narrabeen and a match against the Australian Barbarians we departed for Milan and onto the AIS European Training Centre on the shores of Lake Varese for a few days of training and acclimatisation before we headed to Mantova. The heat in Mantova was intense with this area being known for high humidity and high heat during the summer months. Our hottest training session was conducted in searing 37 degree heat and high humidity.
The goal going into the tournament was to make the top four and the semi finals and we knew that this would most likely require 11 points minimum from our three pool games. This would be two bonus point wins against Samoa and the hosts Italy and at least a point from last year’s runners up, South Africa. Our first game went well and we secured a four try bonus point win against a well drilled Samoan team. The performance wasn’t great but we got the job done. Unfortunately we lost one of our key Super Rugby players due to a syndesmosis injury and had to send him home. Always tough but that’s the nature of a contact sport.
Second up was Italy and again after a slow start we got the job done with a four try bonus point win. Again we unfortunately lost a player to a hamstring injury. This is the best start we’d had to the tournament since 2010 in securing a maximum 10 points from the first two games putting us in a strong position to make the semi finals which again we hadn’t done since 2011.
After our first two games being played in Parma we headed to Calvisano to take on the bulk and brawn of the South Africans. If the matches ahead of us went to form and England beat France in their last pool game we now knew that we could make the top four play offs with ten points. Unfortunately the French did us no favours and beat the English which meant that we had to get at the very least a losing bonus point against South Africa. Every time we saw the South African’s they looked huge and this was the way they played. We couldn’t win the physical battles and in a physical game if you don’t win the battles it makes it very hard to win the game. We had to throw too many bodies in to every breakdown and this eventually took its toll and we got bumped aside 6 tries to 2. We also picked up a lot of knocks leaving the boys bodies as well as egos bruised and battered for a few days. We lost another key player with a dislocated shoulder which didn’t help matters especially given the distance to fly players in from Australia. The outcome meant that again like the last three years we were in the 5-8 playoff position with Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
The second half of the tournament gives an extra day between games so we made use of this by sending the boys to Lake Garda for a day of recovery and to get their minds of rugby before we switched on again for the Scots. The fourth game at this tournament is always a dangerous one as you have to pick yourself up from the pool games which can either leave you disappointed as we were at not making the top four, or exhausted from the effort of finishing where you hoped to be…or both. Thankfully against a much improved from previous years Scottish outfit and despite another slow start we managed to turn around a narrow half time deficit into a reasonable comfortable win. Again it wasn’t an 80 minute performance but we got up 31-21 and secured a 5th v 6th play off against the Welsh. The injury toll continued to rise and we lost one more player. Before facing the Welsh for the rights to finish 5th we had a day trip to Venice to recharge the flagging batteries and help the boys freshen up. This proved to be a good option as our last two training sessions were good ones and again after a sluggish start against the Welsh in stifling midday heat we managed to get up 28-23 and finish the tournament in 5th place. Four wins from five starts was the tally and in reality it was a fair reflection of where we sit in relation to the other countries despite our disappointment in not making the top four. The size and skill of the players at this level gets better every year. As an example the South Africans smallest forward was 114 kg and after they dominated us physically at the breakdown and in particular at scrum time, they went on to lose to England who more than matched their scrum and in turn the Kiwi’s matched the English forward pack in the final and after they had secured enough ball their backs did the rest to win the tournament for them.
With several of the Kiwi players impressing week in and week out in Super Rugby and some of our boys still playing Colts Club rugby the task was always going to be huge. One of our issues was putting together an 80 minute performance and at this level if you don’t compete well at the set piece and break down for 80 minutes it is always going to be tough. One noticeable difference this year has been the rise in quality of rugby played by the historically weaker nations at this level. Argentina suffered two very narrow loses in their pool games, one to eventual winners New Zealand where they managed to lose by a penalty after final whistle and one to Ireland who finished in 7th place. Argentina ended up in the 9-12 playoff. And Samoa who have struggled in the past showed some real development in their program by playing some well structured and disciplined rugby despite finishing in 12th spot.