There is no shortage of rugby wonderkids (even after Wales and Ireland disappointingly decided to prioritise their national tours) in this year’s Junior World Championship with the tournament set to be the most competitive in its six year history. One just has to look at the two mouth-watering pools, with Pool A comprising of England, France, South Africa and USA, and Pool B housing New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and Fiji. This tournament is going to be a cracker. In choosing only six players to profile the RR decided to overlook the most obvious two, Jan Serfontein and Ardie Savea and focus on players that are perhaps less well known but nonetheless budding stars. The RR was further pained to leave out some of his favourite players: Santiago Cordero, Jonny Gray, David Sisi, Rory Scholes, and Lolagi Visinia, all of whom are poised to have huge tournaments.
Tomas Lavarini, Lock, Argentina
The Pumitas have just come off a 2-1 series win over the Baby Boks and the platform for their two victories was set by the domination of the Pumitas forwards. The standout from those matches was Lavarini who displayed impressive raw physical attributes and some subtle skills not often associated with Argentinian big men. Lavarini is a monster, 2 metres tall and 118kg, and he is not shy about using his power to punish opposing teams whether as a defender or a ball carrier. Lavarini has already represented Argentina in the South American Championship and is widely picked to make his full international debut against Georgia in a month. The Pumitas have a real chance to emulate or even improve on last year’s 4th place finish and with Lavarini leading from the front opposing sides should be warned not to underestimate this team.
Anthony Watson, Fullback, England
Watson was recently snapped up by Bath from London Irish, a move that will likely irk London Irish fans as Watson is perhaps the most exciting back prospect to come through the English ranks since Delon Armitage a decade or so ago. Many readers will be familiar with the large number of youtube videos of Watson which showcase his incredible speed. Even as a 17-year-old he burned season professionals when he appeared for the Northern Hemisphere team in the Help for Heroes match in 2011. Watson has already cut his teeth in the Aviva premiership and while he is still only 19 years old he has not looked out of place at all. Previous English teams tended to dominate forward battles but lost out in the backs, Watson’s ability to burn defenders gives England a weapon they have often lacked and could be a key ingredient for a successful tournament.
Christopher Tolofua, Hooker, France
Tolofua endured a tough season after the heights of two international caps for France on their Argentinian tour last year. He was unable to crack the Toulouse senior squad with any regularity (a tough task given his age and his competition) and then endured a rather disappointing Six Nations with the French under-20 team. However, with the French playing at home, Tolofua gets a great opportunity to power out of his plateau and remind the world that he is a supreme talent. Tolofua is a beast. He has already garnered a reputation as a devastating tackler and a skilled ball carrier but inconsistency is his biggest problem and he can drift in and out of matches. The microscope will be on him to produce for the French and perhaps replicate the 2006 team which won the then Under-21 World Championship on home soil.
Joseph Edwards, Number 8, New Zealand
It seems that over the last few years, particularly since the end of Rodney So’oialo’s reign, there has been a noticeable lack of bona fide number 8s coming through in New Zealand. Sure Kieran Read is arguably the best in the world and Victor Vito and Liam Messam have deputised adequately at times, but all three were not natural number 8s. Joseph Edwards (and Jordan Taufua for that matter) is about to change this. The specialist number 8 made a name for himself last year, as an 18-year-old, in Auckland’s run to the ITM Cup final where he was praised for his mature and smart play. Edwards is a natural leader and he is not afraid of taking on a large workload either with ball in hand or defensively. If it was not for the once-in-a-generation talent of Ardie Savea then Edwards would had undoubtedly been captain. Look for him to form a formidable pairing with Savea and provide the backbone of New Zealand’s challenge.
Handre Pollard, Fly half, South Africa
It has been a good 12 months for Pollard. He was top scorer in the 2012 Junior World Championship and part of the victorious South African team. Soon after his impressive performances for the Baby Boks, Pollard was signed by the Blue Bulls and is seemingly the heir apparent to Morne Steyn there. Like Steyn, Pollard has a strong kicking game (a prerequisite for succeeding in South Africa it seems). But he deviates from Steyn in his physical stature (188cm, 98kg) which means he is less of a liability defensively. Pollard doesn’t have the attacking instincts of Johan Goosen but he is also no slouch. Coaches have praised his nerves of steel and already at the age of 19 he has demonstrated his unflappable nature. If the Baby Boks want to repeat as World Champions they will likely have to lean heavily on the shoulders of Pollard.
Jordan Williams, Utility, Wales
There is much hoopla in Wales at the moment around the blossoming of Rhys Patchell who seems a genuine prodigious talent after adapting well to senior rugby with Cardiff. Unfortunately, Patchell’s rise has seen him selected for the Welsh tour to Japan and consequently robs the tournament of a genuine star. However Welsh fans should not lament his absence too much as it opens up an opportunity for Jordan Williams, a gifted utility player (fly-half seems his natural position but he is extremely competent at full back) from Llanelli, who has been excelling in the Principality Premiership (337 points in 24 games) as well as getting a taste of first-team football with Scarlets in the Rabodirect Pro12 and LV= Cup. Williams has a natural instinctive feel for rugby and can cause real damage with his game-breaking ability. His natural ability also extends to kicking as he is competent off both feet and is tactically astute.
3 ‘under the radar’ players:
Sevanaia Galala. Centre, Fiji
Galala’s backstory is extremely interesting. Plucked from his Fijian homeland by Brive, the front-rower has reinvented himself as a centre and occasional winger. He is big, fast and has played well when he has received game time in the French second division (a tough league in its own right).
Fomai Ah Ki, Fullback, Samoa
Ah Ki went extremely close to making the New Zealand team for the Championship and his omission at the last stage before the tournament has resulted in a huge coup for Samoan rugby. Ah Ki is a fine exponent of the sevens game and this should translate well for Samoa if they can get the ball to him in space.
Jared Stewart, Centre, USA
Stewart has already experienced life as a professional footballer during a stint with Leeds Rhinos in the Super League rugby league competition. Injuries have hampered his development, a major reason why he is now with the Newcastle Falcons, but the pedigree remains. Stewart should provide the US with some power in the midfield.
N.B. The IRB will be streaming live matches online at www.IRB.com.
Who are you excited about seeing at the Junior RWC? Comments below…