IRB Junior World Championship 2010
Stars of tomorrow descend on Argentina
June 3, 2010
Who will be Zac Guildford's successor at the Junior World Championship © Getty Images
The stars of tomorrow will descend on Argentina this weekend as the IRB Junior World Championship gets underway, with all eyes on New Zealand as they look to retain their title.
The tournament has been reduced to 12 teams in 2010, meaning that only the four Pool winners will progress to the semi-finals, so some tough encounters are on the cards as the teams scrap for knockout rugby.
The Kiwis were in scintillating form in Japan in 2009, rampaging past England in the final under the steam of current All Black wing Zac Guildford and Hurricanes fly-half Aaron Cruden, himself in line for a first Test cap this summer after making the squad to play Ireland and Wales.
Guildford's tournament ended in tragedy as his father, Robert, died in the stands from a heart attack moments after the final whistle, but in the build-up to this year's staging he has praised its influence on young players. "Obviously with the passing of my dad probably five minutes after the final whistle it sort of put a bit of a damper on winning the tournament, but in saying that I am glad that we did win because he got to see me win an Under 20 title again and to have him there was obviously really special throughout the tournament," he told Total Rugby.
The defending champions' opener is a tasty affair against rivals Fiji on Saturday, while last season's beaten finalists, England, have a tough assignment against the hosts.
Their squad is littered with players who have graced the Guinness Premiership this season, led by Gloucester fullback Freddie Burns and his London Irish counterpart Tom Homer, and also have five players back for more after tasting defeat last season. Homer, Harlequins duo Joe Marler and Rory Clegg, Saracens' Jamie George and Gloucester's Shaun Knight all return in a squad captained by Leeds' Jacob Rowan.
"Argentina will be a massive test but we're a dynamic, strong side and our fitness levels are excellent," Burns said. "From one to 26 in the squad everyone's capable of doing something really special and that makes us a dangerous team.
"We've improved throughout the season and we attack in lots of different ways. Sides should never know what we're going to do next. We've got players all over the field who can make an impact and that might mean runners out wide but it also means the forwards passing and offloading."
Wales coach Phil Davies is confident of semi-final spot despite being drawn in the same Pool as New Zealand, and his charges have a physical encounter first up against Samoa. The same problems face Ireland, whose tough group kicks off against France before what will be a highly charged game against England.
There is a Tri-Nations flavour to Pool D, where Australia and South Africa are joined by Tonga and Scotland. Australia begin their quest for honours against Scotland on Saturday, but have had less than ideal preparation as Brumbies flanker Michael Hooper and centre Tim Bennetts have both been ruled out through injury.
South Africa will need to steel themselves for an onslaught against Tonga as they look to better their third-place finishes in the last two championships. CJ Stander, a rookie last season, returns to captain the Baby Boks as they eye the final.