U20 Rugby Championship launched to bridge growing gap with northern hemisphere

U20 Rugby Championship launched to bridge growing gap with northern hemisphere
Paul de Villiers, captain of South Africa during the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023, 3rd place play-off match against England at Athlone Stadium. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/World Rugby)

Junior teams from the southern hemisphere will have a chance to play top-level international rugby before the World Championships in the new U20 Rugby Championship.

On a cold and muddy day in Paarl last June, Junior Springbok head coach Bafana Nhleko was still processing a shock loss to Italy.

South Africa were hosting the 2023 Under-20 World Championships and the defeat left the progress of the Junior Boks in the balance. As it turned out, they finished third in the tournament, but were some way behind eventual finalists France and Ireland.

Most people just expected the Junior Boks to roll over Italy, but in the treacherous conditions, against a good team well acclimatised to the pressures of international rugby, it was never going to be an easy task.

Nhleko, not unreasonably, pointed out that Italy had come through a tough U20 Six Nations in third place — finishing above England, Scotland and Wales.

The Bok coach also noted that the Six Nations counterparts had each played at least five tough international matches before the World Championships started. South Africa had warm-up games against club sides False Bay, Hamiltons and Maties. His team was not adequately prepared.

“They start playing the Six Nations comp from under-16 onwards and by the time they get to under-20 — in junior terms — they’ve got 50 international caps,” Nhleko said at the time.

“It’s not something that we have, neither do we have the privilege of playing against them and testing ourselves.

“We’ve got a great product which is our schoolboy system and we must never go away from that because it’s a bedrock of our rugby. Where we probably can get better as to understanding what that product needs to do to support the under-20 programme.”

Nhleko called for a U20 Rugby Championship — not only for the Junior Boks — but for the rest of the southern hemisphere as well.

Again, it was not an unreasonable request considering France have been U20 world champions since 2019 and last year’s tournament saw England and Ireland join SA and France in the semis.

Quite simply, northern hemisphere countries have surged ahead at U20 level and the Junior Six Nations has been a crucial reason for that dominance.

Junior Bok head coach Bafana Nhleko,

Junior Bok head coach Bafana Nhleko lamented the lack of international exposure before the World Championships in 2023. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/World Rugby)

Inaugural tournament

In response to the growing chasm, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) confirmed last July that it would launch a U20 Rugby Championship as a matter of urgency.

On Wednesday, Sanzaar confirmed the 2024 tournament and fixtures, which will be held in Australia.

The Junior Springboks will kick off the inaugural Rugby Championship (TRC) Under-20 tournament against New Zealand on Thursday, 2 May at the Sunshine Coast Stadium.

The event will be played in the Sunshine Coast region, north of Brisbane in Queensland on Australia’s eastern seaboard.

It will comprise a round-robin format where all teams will play each other once. The top team after the three-round, six-match tournament will be declared the first Rugby Championship U20 champion.

Following the opening round, the Junior Boks will face hosts Australia five days later. Nhleko’s SA U20 team will conclude their fixtures on Sunday, 12 May when they face Argentina.

Sanzaar chief executive Brendan Morris explained the strategic reasons for the new competition: “The TRC U20 Championship is an exciting investment and development strategy that will allow for a more defined pathway for younger players into senior and international rugby and provide a springboard into the annual World Rugby U20 Championship that is currently missing”.

“This exposure to international matches against top-quality opposition can only benefit the players in terms of experience and adapting to the demands of top-level rugby. The tournament will also provide extra development opportunities for coaches, team management and match officials.”

Jean Smith, U20 Rugby Championship

Junior Bok flyhalf Jean Smith was one of the players who had their first proper taste of international rugby at the 2023 World Champs. The next generation of players will compete in an U20 Rugby Championship. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/World Rugby)

Junior Boks preparing

Nhleko and his coaching staff have been busy with preparations for the U20 Rugby Championship and World Rugby U20 Championship with a series of alignment camps.

Recently, the team played a number of matches against senior provincial sides as part of the camps, to get the training group further aligned and battle-ready for the two international events.

According to Nhleko, they are well on course with their preparation programme.

“We are demanding a lot from our group in terms of learning and application, and the players have responded well,” said Nhleko.

“They are aligning to the coaching, how we want to play, and what is required for them to perform at this level.

“Crucially for us, the U20 Rugby Championship will give us time to play against quality opposition, test the group combinations and help us identify the right guys before the final squad selection.

“The Championship will also help bridge the previous gap between the preparation period and the World Rugby U20 Championship. We are excited for this opportunity to play in Australia, which will be a great experience for the players and a fantastic opportunity for us to continue to grow as a group.” DM

All games will be staged at the Sunshine Coast Stadium.

Rugby Championship U20 schedule (SA kick-off times):

Thursday, 2 May

09h00: Junior Boks vs New Zealand

11h00: Australia vs Argentina

Tuesday, 7 May

09h00: New Zealand vs Argentina

11h00: Junior Boks vs Australia

Sunday, 12 May

05h30: Junior Boks vs Argentina

07h30: Australia vs New Zealand


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • M E says:

    Please exclude SuperSport from bidding for this. Give the ordinary people of SA who can’t afford Dstv a chance to watch our next generation of rugby players excell.

  • John Patson says:

    It is also good for national teams. France had two players in the six nations this year who were eligible to play U20s rugby, and who moved between senior and junior teams according to team availability. Notably both were also playing pro, top 14 club rugby week in week out.
    Might slow their academic progress but that is what happened when rugby turned pro (under pressure from the South…)
    They also had been training with sessions with the seniors for 18 months, since they were 17…
    Not all the U20s go on to play pro rugby for the next 15 years, but a significant proportion do.

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