World Rugby U20 Championship preview: New Zealand

New Zealand depart for the south of France on the back of a fourth consecutive Oceania Rugby U20 Championship victory; they defeated Tonga (97-0), Fiji (55-15) and Australia (28-43) on the Gold Coast at the beginning of May. Craig Philpott has named a squad with two players who featured in last year’s world champions – Caleb Clarke and captain Tom Christie – and eight (including Clarke) who are eligible for the 2019 tournament.

Forwards

Loosehead prop: Rob Cobb (U19), Sione Asi, Xavier Numia
Hooker: Flynn Thomas, Ricky Jackson
Tighthead prop: Tevita Mafileo, Kaliopasi Uluilakepa (U19)
Lock: Laghlan McWhannell, Will Tucker, Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa, John Akau’ola-Laula
Back row: Tom Florence, Hoskins Sotutu, Tom Christie (captain), Will Tremain, Devan Flanders (U19)

Unavailable due to injury: Tim Farrell (loosehead), Bradley Slater (hooker), Cameron Suafoa (lock), Brayden Iose (back row)

Xavier Numia – a loosehead who played two years of New Zealand Secondary Schools rugby – is the only addition to the Oceania squad, with Suetena Asomua dropping out after a tough time at set-piece in his only start against Fiji. Tremain was a late addition to the squad for the Oceania tournament, and is retained for the World Championship. Farrell and Iose were stand-outs up front for the 2016 NZSS side, and played Mitre 10 Cup rugby in 2017 for Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu respectively.

Backs

Scrum-half: Jay Renton, Xavier Roe
Fly-half: Harry Plummer, Kaleb Trask (U19)
Midfield backs: Tanielu Tele’a, Billy Proctor (U19), Bailyn Sullivan, Scott Gregory (U19)
Outside backs: Caleb Clarke (U19), Leicester Faingaanuku (U19), Vilimoni Koroi, Jamie Spowart

Unavailable due to injury: Will Jordan (outside back)

In a somewhat surprising decision, scrum-half Carlos Price and fly-half Ciarahn Matoe – both NZ U20 representatives last year, and both NPC-contracted players – were the two backs cut from the Oceania squad; two of the later additions to the Oceania squad – Northland’s Scott Gregory and Tasman’s Jamie Spowart – are retained in their place. The absence of Will Jordan due to injury is a blow, as he was one of the tournament’s outstanding players in 2017.


In the Oceania Championship, the Baby Blacks did what New Zealand teams do: they kicked intelligently to space, defended stoutly in phase play, progressed the ball effectively with accurate handling, and struck with devastating speed when presented with opportunities in transition.

Their accurate kicking out of hand has perhaps been the most notable feature of their game so far in 2018: after kicking approximately once every 7.5 carries across all fixtures in 2017, they have kicked once every 4.5 carries in their three matches to date this year. This was particularly evident in their 97-0 win against Tonga, where they put a clear emphasis on kicking to space on set-piece attack:

They complemented this with a phase attack strategy that was slightly different to their approach on the Gold Coast last year: while in 2017 Philpott based his attack around fly-half Tiaan Falcon with forward carries off 10 (NZ averaged 1.28 passes per carry in the tournament), in 2018 they focused more on using forwards directly off their scrum-half (averaging 1.14 passes per carry) – the use of tip-on passes was a more prominent feature in this year’s tournament.

Where they were most devastating, however, was in transition. They regularly sought to generate opportunities against disorganised defences from quick restarts and tap penalties:

NZ 22 drop-out.gif

NZ tap + go 1.gif

NZ tap + go 2.gif

Vilimoni Koroi, who has starred as a playmaker for the All Blacks Sevens side for the past two seasons, was also extremely effective on kick return from fullback against Australia:

Koroi acceleration + footwork.gif

They should be able to generate plentiful opportunities at a level which is generally a lot looser than senior test rugby; there were an average of 31.7 turnovers per 80 minutes (on 220.3 total carries) in the 2017 U20 World Championship, compared to 28.0 (on 231.6 combined carries per game) in test rugby across 2016 and 2017. Nevertheless – as in numerous years in the past – it is their set-piece that could prove to be their undoing in France: New Zealand’s five props conceded a combined 8 scrum penalties in 480 minutes on the Gold Coast.

While Fiji were able to make progress the ball effectively against NZ playing against 14 men for 62 minutes (after centre Billy Proctor was red-carded for a dangerous tackle), their defensive performance in their final game – in which they allowed Australia to make only 3.0 metres per carry – will provide Philpott with assurance that their defence in phase play will be strong over the coming weeks.


The issues noted in the front row will provide the head coach with an interesting selection quandary. Cobb is the likely frontrunner at loosehead after starting two games there, while Uluilakepa was the more effective tighthead in open play. Both Cobb and Asi have also played on the tighthead side, and moving the former from 1 to 3 – a position in which he started for NZSS in 2016, and which he was called in to cover for the U20s in Georgia last year – with Numia at loosehead is a potential option if set-piece problems persist. At hooker, Otago’s Ricky Jackson started against Australia and is likely to continue in this role; he garnered the majority (147 of 240) of the minutes available at the position in the tournament, with Flynn Thomas providing support in reserve.

Waikato’s Laghlan McWhannell is an outstanding second row prospect: at 2.01m tall, he has an excellent frame with scope for adding more size as he develops, but at his current weight brings great mobility to the position. His handling is good in attack, and he brings this skill level to his work at defensive restarts and at the lineout:

McWhannell static LO jump.gif

In the example above – during the Chiefs’ preseason game against the Blues in February 2018 – he gets quick elevation from a standing start in front of the defensive jumper, extends his arms towards the ball to secure possession, and makes an accurate transfer of the ball to the scrum-half. He is very likely to be Philpott’s first-choice lock (scrummaging on the tighthead side), but the identity of his partner is less certain. Tucker is another strong lineout forward and Akau’ola-Laula the most dynamic carrier of the three options, while Riedlinger-Kapa – at only 1.92m – is short of the requisite size to excel at the position at senior level.

The back row, led by captain Tom Christie on the openside, was absolutely outstanding in the Oceania tournament. Tom Florence is likely to start on the blindside, and has been New Zealand’s most impressive forward so far this year: his breakdown work on both sides of the ball is accurate, he is a lineout option in both defence and attack, and he was excellent carrying the ball in the 15m channels in phase attack. Christie is not a prominent carrier for the side, but is technically excellent in contact – his low body position both when clearing out in attack and when completing tackles is particularly noticeable.

The two Toms will likely be joined by Devan Flanders at the base of the scrum. The Hastings BHS product is eligible again in 2019, and has the potential to be one of New Zealand’s most impressive age-grade back row forwards in recent memory by next year’s tournament. His tackling technique is excellent and he is exceptionally comfortable moving laterally without the ball, as he showed during his schoolboy career in both 15s and 7s:

Flanders tackle + TO

Flanders tracking + tackle

In attack, his ability to extend in contact and offload would be valuable in the role Florence is asked to fill in the 15m channels, but he was mostly asked to operate in the middle of the field at the Oceania tournament; he completed 15 passes and 11 carries in 173 minutes, and did not concede a turnover on 29 total touches.

Hoskins Sotutu provides cover at 6 and 8, and was the most competent passer among New Zealand’s forwards on the Gold Coast; openside Tremain is the other player named in the back row. The Hawke’s Bay flanker is a very good athlete: he defended competently at centre on set-piece after Proctor’s red card against Fiji, and showed good balance, footwork and acceleration to finish from distance against Tonga:

Tremain finish.gif

The selection of Roe and Renton over Price at scrum-half suggests a desire to play with pace; both feature in the examples of transition attack above, while the Wellington scrum-half’s strength lies in the control provided by his tidy passing and kicking.

Harry Plummer is certain to start in the Baby Blacks’ midfield, but it may be at 12 rather than fly-half; Kaleb Trask was named in the 10 shirt for the Oceania decider with Australia. Plummer – who was also asked to play 12 alongside Matoe for NZSS – has coped ably whenever moved to second five-eighth; despite his lack of size for the position he brings willing physicality on short carries and rapid speed off the line to lead the defence. While his kicking game and game awareness will likely lead to a long-term future at 10, it is positive for his future development that he has shown the capability to adapt to the challenges of a different position in the backline. Proctor, Tele’a and Sullivan are all options to start at centre outside Plummer, with Tele’a also having slotted inside to 12 in their game against Tonga; he and Sullivan are also able to play on the wing, while Gregory provides cover across the midfield and back three.

Koroi – along with Marcus Smith of England and Damian Willemse of South Africa – is in the category of playmakers who could dominate the tournament with ball in hand, and will be Philpott’s first choice in the 15 shirt; his New Zealand Sevens teammate Clarke is certain to start alongside him in the back three. Faingaanuku provides a power option on the wing, but favours Clarke’s preferred left wing; Spowart is a natural fullback with an effortless outside break, but started on the right wing against Australia and may bring a better balance to the outside backs opposite Clarke.


New Zealand’s 2017 crop at U20 level was exceptional – 13 of their World Championship squad earned 2018 Super Rugby contracts, while the unavailable Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett cemented themselves as All Blacks – and this year’s squad is unlikely to make its mark so rapidly at senior professional level. Nevertheless, there is enough talent in this group to compete for a seventh U20 title despite some set-piece issues, and Philpott’s side should be in the running as competition reaches its final stages in a few weeks’ time.

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