'Fighting fund' aiding Junior Wallabies' push for final four finish

World Rugby U20s Championship
by Sam Phillips

Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore believes a return to the top four at the 2019 World U20s Championship is within reach, as statistics reveal the strides his side took in achieving a fifth place finish.

Australia has finished no higher than fifth since claiming bronze at the tournament in 2011 and while that has plenty to do with the cutthroat nature of the group stage - with only the top nation from each pool progressing to the final four - the fact remains the more successful sides in the Test arena in recent years have been perennial contenders at U20s level.

England have made six straight finals and have claimed three titles in the process so it is little coincidence that their next generation claimed 18 straight Test wins under the eye of Eddie Jones.

It's no secret the All Blacks have a production line of ready made talent and they, too, have all but matched England with two titles of their own in the same period.

The Wallabies, in contrast, have shown glimpses of brilliance without the consistency both the All Blacks and England enjoy - coinciding with a poor run of results at U20s level.

While the fifth-place finish doesn't appear to be a significant step forward, Gilmore pointed to the difference in star power between this year and last as a positive moving forward.McDermott was one of few Super Rugby squad members in this year's Junior Wallabies side. Photo: Sportography"The tournament itself we were pretty happy with when you consider the exposure and the experience of the guys in this year's squad," Gilmore said.

"We will have quite a lot of the boys back in this squad next year and when you take out that first game - which is something we need to work on - we had a pretty good tournament.

"We really took it to New Zealand and while we didn't get the result, there was a lot to like."

The numbers back Gilmore's belief up.

Australia had the third best points differential (76), tries differential (10) and scored the most points at the tournament (178) - all signs this young core can push for a final four berth next year.

"We can definitely get there but we still have work to do," Gilmore said.

"We have to get better physically and make sure we are winning those battles at the contact point.

"We have to keep working hard on our skill development but if we can improve in those areas I think we have the structures in place to push for that top four."The Junior Wallabies are on the up. Photo: AFPThe Junior Wallabies pack punched above its weight in France but the host nation showed the effectiveness of a physical pack in claiming their first ever tournament win - bashing New Zealand and England en route to the top.

"That pack - with a guy like (player of the tournament) Jordan Joseph - they just bashed New Zealand out of the contest," Gilmore said.

"That style of play, you can do it so consistently and we have to get better in that space."

With top-line U20s talent typically snapped up into Super Rugby duty, the difficulty of consistently calling upon the best talent available is a reality Gilmore accepts will never change, but expanding the pool of players available can only be aided by Rugby Australia's new "fighting fund", which was recently used to secure the services of highly sought after teen Apenisa Driti.

"It's early days for (the fund) but it is something that is certainly needed," Gilmore said.

"We have the most competitive winter sports market in the world and they're all after the same players.

"If we can successfully identify who those critical players are, keep them and then develop them through the Super clubs and this program, we're on our way."