Waugh: U20s is the ultimate stepping stone

by Phil Waugh

As we brace ourselves for what will likely be one of the greatest European inbound Test tours of all time outside a British Lions Tour, the next generation of Wallabies has been selected to represent Australia in the World U20s Championship.

As a developing player, the U20s is perhaps the final stepping stone in the apprenticeship of becoming a professional rugby player, whether that be in Super Rugby or Sevens.

The format of this tournament has changed and evolved over time. The previous pathway included both national U19 and U21 sides.

The most common pathway began at Australian Schoolboys, into the Australia U19s the first year after finishing school and then the Australia U21 team.

This would be the launch pad through to the then three Super 12 teams: the NSW Waratahs, ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds.

Due to the increased demand of talent in an expanded Super Rugby competition and greater opportunities for junior players to play professionally around the world, the IRB disbanded the U19 and U21 programs, settling on a Junior World Championship for U20 representatives instead.

The U20s is a vital part of the Australian rugby pathway. Photo: Getty ImagesSince its inception, this tournament has been the breeding ground for the next cohort of international household rugby names.

It is the environment in which junior players first gain an appreciation of the global nature of rugby, a game that gives all players at any level an opportunity to be embraced by a community in almost every nation.

I was fortunate enough to represent the Australia U21s for three consecutive years, playing in world tournaments in South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand, with four weeks in each of these amazing countries before I was even 21. What an opportunity!

What I didn’t realise at the time was I was playing alongside players with whom I would later go on and represent my country at the highest level.

Not only were we playing with players who would become worldwide household names, but playing against the best from other nations, people against whom I would later play Rugby World Cup and Bledisloe Cups. This place was a prerequisite to the big stage.

In 1998 as an 18-year-old I was playing in a side that had a backline with Elton Flatley and Stirling Mortlock, side by side.

Phil Waugh played in the 2003 World Cup final alongside some of his junior rep teammates. Photo: Getty ImagesFast forward five years to the 2003 Rugby World Cup, these two were to be among the most influential players in the World Cup final.

That was a Rugby World Cup side whose backrow consisted of George Smith, David Lyons and myself. The same backrow that only years earlier had combined to represent the country at a junior level.

These combinations you forge and the experiences you have together matter.

In more recent times, we have seen some stellar players rise from Australia’s U20s teams.

In 2004 Australia was represented by Stephen Moore, Rocky Elsom, Drew Mitchell, Luke Burgess and Digby Ioane.

David Pocock is one who came through the pathway. Photo: Getty ImagesAll of those players have gone on to have some illustrious careers. In 2008 it was Pocock, Cooper, Beale, Horne, McCalman and Hanson. Again, these guys have been reunited on the biggest stage, many even featuring in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final.

One thing we must note though is that winning games and championships becomes habitual. International U20s teams that win a Junior Rugby World Championship gain confidence and believe that they are the best in the world.

Not just the best juniors, but the best on the biggest stage they have against the best every other country has to offer.

This is why, whilst the Australian teams have performed admirably in the U20s tournaments in recent years, it is time to take that next step.

Falling short of the top four isn’t acceptable, even if it’s through a quirk of the draw as it has been in recent years.

New Zealand won the U20s championship in 2015. Photo: Getty ImagesAustralia needs to be leading the world at a junior level to build the platform to win at the highest level; for the Wallabies. Win here and you lay the foundations for winning World Cups down the track.

These young men who have jetted off to Manchester in the UK for this year’s Junior Rugby World Championship have the opportunity to not just shape their playing careers but their lives more broadly.

Sure, the majority will have the opportunity to progress through to the professional environment but for some, this will be their highest representative level.

The experiences they have in the next few weeks will have a lasting effect, one way or another.