U20 World Championship
Akira Ioane stars as New Zealand and England prove the future is bright
Martyn Thomas
June 22, 2015
Akira Ioane
Akira Ioane© (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

If there was any doubt as to how seriously the World Rugby U20 Championship is taken by its leading protagonists then it was surely extinguished in Cremona on Saturday night.

The sight of New Zealand coach Scott Robertson exuberantly breakdancing on the pitch while encircled by his jubilant players will live long with anyone who was there to witness it, or indeed has seen it since on social media.

Robertson, a former back-row forward who won 23 caps for the All Blacks, was clearly overcome by the emotion of leading his country to their fifth title.

The competition has come to be seen as a finishing school of the highest standard by New Zealand and England with the countries sharing seven of the eight titles since its inception.

A glance at the list of players graduating from victorious New Zealand teams to the senior All Blacks would seem to bear testament to that. Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Brodie Retallick are a selection of the names that emerged as an age-group world champion. 

Others include Gareth Anscombe, Rodney Ah You and Winston Stanley, all three internationals albeit with Wales, Ireland and Samoa rather than New Zealand.

Only South Africa have managed to break their duopoly, and the Baby Boks were again contenders in Italy. But in the end the tournament belonged to the men in black. 

Led by their monstrous captain Atunaisa Moli - at 19 stone the heaviest player in the tournament - the Baby Blacks were too strong, powerful and skilful for the teams they ran into.

No-one personified this more than the side's impressive No.8, Akira Ioane. Not the most physically imposing on first impression, the Auckland Blues back-row still manages to make himself known on the pitch, and with devastating effect.

His try in the final against England was the game's defining moment and highlighted perfectly his ability at the breakdown. Ioane's sin-binning could have derailed New Zealand, but bar that indiscretion the Blues youngster - earmarked as Kieran Read's long-term successor in a black shirt - proved he was a man for the big occasion.

Three of the 20-year-old's five tries came in the semi-final and final, with his opening score against France in the last four a marauding effort in the mould of Taulupe Faletau.

Ioane's rise to prominence via a starring role for the New Zealand sevens side has been impressive yet perhaps not completely surprising given both of his parents were internationals and his younger brother, Rieko, is already on the World Sevens circuit.

New Zealand were not a one-man band though, as displayed in the semi-final when Ioane's Blues team-mate Tevita Li grabbed a hat-trick.

Li would finish the tournament with six tries overall, and although England were able to keep him quiet in the final his performances earned him rave reviews back home.

The winger endured a difficult season in Super Rugby as the Blues struggled but seems a natural finisher with a potent mix of pace and strength.

"The way he's playing and improving, I have no doubt he can be a prominent Super Rugby player," Baby Blacks backs coach Leon MacDonald said ahead of the final.

"He needs confidence, but he can be a very good player, and Super Rugby is only the start."

Knitting it all together for Robertson's side was fly-half Otere Black, who finished the tournament with an impressive 17 successful kicks from 18 attempts.

Yet to really break into the Hurricanes set-up in Super Rugby, with Barrett and James Marshall blocking his path, Black was a composed presence in Italy and hinted at a bright future.

Despite defeat in the final, it was a rosy tournament, too, for England. Their coach Jon Callard beamed with pride as he praised the efforts of his players after the final whistle on Saturday night and he had every right to feel upbeat.

England had chances to win the game but came up against a team who even when a man light, appeared to grow stronger as the minutes ticked by.

Led by the impressive Charlie Ewels, Callard's side showed great resolve to come back from their pool-stage disappointment against France and hold off South Africa in the semi-finals.

James Chisholm
James Chisholm© (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ewels was just one of several players with Premiership experience who stood up when they needed to and made a difference for their country. No.8 James Chisholm is highly rated by his club side, Harlequins, and judging by his performances in Italy he could have a big role to play at The Stoop in the coming seasons.

Quins aren't short of young, exciting back-rows of course, while they also possess the evergreen Nick Easter, but if Chisholm can replicate his player-of-the-tournament performances on the Premiership stage then they might have to make room for him.

Chisholm and Ewels need only to look at the rapid rise of Maro Itoje to see what can be achieved off the back of success with the U20s.

Itoje packed down with both 12 months ago, captaining the side to victory over South Africa in the final, but after a breakthrough season with Saracens he is in contention for the World Cup rather than its junior equivalent.

Seeing their former team-mate run out at a home World Cup, if the versatile forward is selected, should prove an enticing carrot and ensure Callard's encouragement proves prophetic.

© Martyn Thomas

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