Starmers: Baby Blacks are vulnerable in Italy
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New Zealand may have been the dominant force in IRB Junior World Championship history with a perfect record of 15 wins from 15 and three titles in the bag, but renowned commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith has an inkling that this could change over the next 17 days in Italy.
Starmers has witnessed all three of the triumphs – in Wales, Japan and Argentina – and described the first two sides as exceptional sides, but labelled last year’s outfit as “up in the stratosphere somewhere” after they brushed aside a talented Australia to win the final 62-17.
It would take a brave man to predict that New Zealand will not make it four in a row, such has been their dominance of Age Grade rugby in recent years, but while Starmers believe they will be a tough outfit to derail, he does believe they “might come unstuck for the first time”.
“The joy of these events is the uncertainty,” explained Starmers. “Basically you’re looking at the stars of the future and we’ve seen that happen so well, even in the last three years of the Junior World Championship.
“What I’m hoping for this time is that it’s a little more even. New Zealand have been an outstanding side for all three years, but last year they were in a class of their own and no-one could really compete with them. The final really emphasised how they were in a class of their own, but I think this time it is going to be a lot closer.
“A lot of lessons were learned by the other countries from that New Zealand performance, including that bulk isn’t in itself the answer. Physical presence isn’t everything, talent is, and skill is, and that’s what New Zealand had in abundance.”
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New Zealand kick-start their quest for a fourth successive title against hosts Italy, the side returning to the IRB Junior World Championship as winners of the sister tournament, the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Russia last year.
The daunting prospect does not get any easier, with Italy having lost two key players – first choice fly half Luca Morisi and forward Marco Fuser – to injury, especially not when New Zealand can field the likes of Lima Sopoaga and Sam Cane, who have both played Super Rugby this year.
The question may be just how many tries the Baby Blacks will run in against the Azzurrini at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo on Friday evening, but the first will be a significant score as it will be New Zealand’s 100th in Junior World Championship history.
Italian fans are still getting behind their team and the stadium is expected to be a sell-out, but the first match in Treviso will be the mouth-watering encounter of day one, with two-time runners-up England facing an Ireland side they beat 46-13 in the Six Nations.
England clinched the Under 20 Six Nations Grand Slam with that victory, but they will be well aware that Ireland were missing a number of key players that evening in Athlone because of Magners League commitments and injuries, and will be keen to set the record straight.
Alex Gray, the England captain, has insisted this is the best team to have arrived at a Junior World Championship and one capable of lifting the distinctive trophy, something Starmers believes is possible.
England: A class act
“Having seen bits of the Six Nations I thought there were some very promising sides. England have been the frustrated side. The first two years they were runners up, last year they failed at the semi final stage.
“This time they look a class act. They were Grand Slam winners, beating all the other European nations and I think they look very tight and clever. Look out for George Ford; he looks a supremely good player and they have a very experienced back in Owen Farrell, who has been outstanding for Saracens and a very important part of their Premiership-winning side.”
Ireland, beaten by England in last year’s opening round in Argentina, will be hoping to avoid a third successive loss to their rivals from across the Irish Sea, and with a full-strength side under former Wales’ Grand Slam-winning coach Mike Ruddock, they do rank in Starmers’ picks as potential title contenders.
South Africa, who have finished third in every JWC to date, and Australia also get a mention, with Starmers used to seeing several of their players on the HSBC Sevens World Series, including the exciting Paul Jordaan and Tshotsho Mbovane for the Baby Boks.
It is another European nation, though, that the former England international believes could be the surprise package of the tournament and may be the first to hand the Baby Blacks a defeat on this stage.
“The potential is there for several teams, not just South Africa and Australia, but Ireland and Wales as well as England to turn the tables, and for once we might see New Zealand not kingpin as they have been so far.
Upsetting the apple cart
“You do take a chance by saying New Zealand aren’t going to win anything these days, whatever form of rugby it is. They are going to be difficult champions to beat, but I just think they might come unstuck for the first time.
“I’m looking at perhaps a vulnerable New Zealand this time. The side that I think may be the team to upset the apple cart is Wales. They’ve got this fly half Matthew Morgan from Ospreys, who every Welshman will say could be the Phil Bennett of the future. I’ve seen him in Sevens and he’s a very useful man.
“Seeing how close they got to England, I think they and England might be the teams ... well put it this way, I think one of the northern hemisphere teams is going to upset the apple cart somewhere.
“Ireland, Wales or England – I fancy all three might get on top of the southern hemisphere teams for once. I don’t think it’s going to be the usual formality of southern hemisphere excluding the north ... this time I think the north might just get a better look in.”
For Wales to have a chance of reaching a first semi final since the inaugural event on home soil in 2008, they will need to start well in their Pool A match against Argentina, the side who beat them 9-8 in a kicking competition on match day four last year, in Padova.
The other matches on Friday see Scotland and South Africa come face to face in Pool C at the same venue, with the two Pool B encounters taking place in Rovigo, where Australia meet familiar foes Tonga and the unpredictable French, lead by Toulouse half back Jean Marc Doussain, tackle the other Pacific Island side, Fiji.