Is this the greatest age-grade team ever?
We go back to the Junior World Championship of 2011 to see the talent that was on display and ask if this is perhaps the greatest age-grade team ever?
In 2011, the William Webb Ellis Cup returned to New Zealand for the first time since the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. The All Blacks had played at five tournaments in the 24-year period between the two successful expeditions and were favourites, or thereabouts, in each of those tournaments. It was a long time between drinks for New Zealanders, and although the celebrations in October were completely understandable, there was a lesser heralded event which took place earlier in the year which paved the way for many successful future international campaigns.
Four months prior to Richie McCaw lifting the World Cup in Auckland, Luke Whitelock was lifting the Junior World Cup in Padua, Italy. The World Rugby U20 Championship (known as the IRB Junior World Championship in the early days) takes place annually and it’s a common launchpad for the international superstars of tomorrow to show off their talent. Every year we see a number of players who are destined for their team’s national squads – but 2011 was a particularly special year for New Zealand, at least in hindsight.
Read through the squad and it’s not difficult to see why the NZ team came out on top in 2011: Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Beaden Barrett and Waisake Naholo are just some of the names that stand out. Altogether, 16 of the 26-man squad went on to represent international teams on the world circuit – an absolutely incredible feat. Which players from the squad have gone on to have successful careers in professional rugby, and how did they fare in the 2011 tournament?
Ben Tameifuna – Tonga
Big Ben started at tighthead in all but one match of the Baby Black’s successful campaign and scored a try in the final. He was picked up by Dave Rennie’s Chiefs in 2012 and made an immediate impact with his hard scrummaging and aggression. Unfortunately, this aggression sometimes seemed to get the best of him and may well have been the reason why he never cracked the All Blacks. Tameifuna was called into the NZ squad but never set foot on the field and eventually moved to France’s Racing 92 after the 2015 season. Tameifuna made his debut for Tonga last year and at 26 still has time to make an impact on the international circuit.
Brad Shields – England
Shields was part of an incredible loose forward trio in the U20’s, comprised of him, Sam Cane and Luke Whitelock. Whilst his compatriots both went on to represent NZ at the top level, Shields never quite managed to crack the All Blacks squad (though he did attend more than one training camp). Instead, Shields battled away as captain for Wellington and the Hurricanes, with Eddie Jones eventually coming calling this year and nabbing him for the English set up. Having notched up over 100 caps for the Hurricanes and 50 for Wellington, Shields will ply his trade for the Wasps next season.
Brodie Retallick – New Zealand
Like Tameifuna, Retallick was snapped up by Dave Rennie when he came on board as the Chiefs coach in 2012. Retallick was elevated into the All Blacks immediately, making his international debut midway through 2012. Since then, he has climbed his way to the top of the second-row talent and established himself as the best second rower in the world – and arguably one of the best New Zealand has ever seen. At the height of his career, Retallick won the World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2014 – though he still has plenty more to give. For various reasons, Retallick has not played a match for the All Blacks since the middle of 2017, but he’s likely to be unleashed once more in the upcoming Rugby Championship.
Codie Taylor – New Zealand
Unlike some of the other players in the U20 squad, Taylor took a bit more time to get his name in the national spotlight. Though known as a try-scoring tyro of a hooker now, Taylor didn’t actually touch down at all during the U20 competition. Stuck behind Corey Flynn and Ben Funnell at the Crusaders, Taylor had to wait until a number of injuries to both his Crusaders at New Zealand teammates in 2015 allowed Taylor to hook a place in the All Blacks squad. Since the 2015 World Cup, Taylor has taken over from Dane Coles as the starting hooker for New Zealand – partially due to Coles’ long-term injuries. Whilst a bit of luck may have played a part in Taylor’s initial rise to fame, he has more than shown that he deserves a spot competing with other international stars.
Dominic Bird – New Zealand
Bird operated primarily off the bench for the U20’s and tended towards a similar role with the Crusaders for a number of years. Bird was selected as part of an extended squad to tour the northern hemisphere in 2013, making his run on debut in a 50 point walloping of Japan. Bird’s only other appearance at the national level was against Scotland a year later after he was called into the team as an injury replacement. Bird looked to rejuvenate his career by relocating to the Chiefs in 2016 but a raft of injuries limited his appearances. Rumours suggest that a clash of opinions may have been one of the causes of Bird’s limited time in the black jersey, but his selection in the All Blacks squad in 2017, even if only as injury cover, imply that these rumours aren’t quite on the money. Bird looks to have put an end to his international career, having signed for Racing 92 for the upcoming season.
Luke Whitelock – New Zealand
Captain Whitelock spent time at both 8 and 6 for the U20’s before joining his brothers at Canterbury and the Crusaders. Like Bird, the youngest Whitelock also made his debut for the All Blacks against in Japan in 2013. He then spent a number of years in the international wilderness – judged by some to be a great player from a technical point of view, but simply not effective enough as a tackler or ball carrier – before making a potentially career-defining move to the Highlanders in 2016. Whitelock went on to captain the All Blacks in a non-test match against a France XV in 2017 and started all three June internationals against France this year as a replacement for injured skipper Kieran Read. Questions still remain over his effectiveness at the international level – whether or not he’s selected in next month’s All Blacks squad will be very interesting.
Sam Cane – New Zealand
Cane was one of the few players in the U20 squad who had already played Super Rugby, having been selected for the Chiefs for the 2011 season. Cane was somewhat surprisingly the top try scorer of the U20 forwards on the back of a hattrick against Wales. Less of a try scorer now, Cane is renowned for his defensive organisational skills and his heavy hitting tackles. Cane is now the incumbent 7 for the All Blacks, having taken over from Richie McCaw at the end of 2015. Cane has also captained the All Blacks twice.
Steven Luatua – New Zealand
Luatua operated in the second row for the U20 team but has spent most of his senior career in the loose forwards. His diverse skill set was both a blessing and a curse during his time in New Zealand as he never quite found his niche for the national team – was he a number 8 that could be used as a regular lineout option, or a lock that could put his hand up as a strong bull runner? Luatua made over 70 appearances for the Blues before calling time on his New Zealand career and moving to England to play for Bristol at the end of 2017 – though not before starring for the Blues in their historic victory over the British and Irish Lions.
Beauden Barrett – New Zealand
The second World Rugby Player of the Year on this list, Barrett spent most of his time in the U20 squad playing at fullback – a position he also invested plenty of time into when he started with the All Blacks in 2012. Taranaki born and bred, Barrett has quickly established himself as one of the premier ball runners on the international circuit and is quite possibly the quickest first five that New Zealand – or even the world – has ever seen. Barrett has won the Super Rugby competition with the Hurricanes and has also secured most silverware available to the All Blacks at some point n his career.
Brad Weber – New Zealand
Weber was the designated back up halfback for the U20s and, although he managed to notch up an All Blacks appearance in 2015 against Samoa, has struggled to release his potential with a number of injuries hampering his progress. Weber progressed under the radar for a number of years after the U20 success, only making his first Super Rugby appearance in 2014 where he battled for match time with All Blacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Augustine Pulu. Competition seems to bring out the best in Weber and although he’s been replaced in the All Blacks squad by Chiefs teammate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Weber return to the international fold in the near future.
Charles Piutau – New Zealand
Like many of his teammates, Piutau had to play out of position during the U20 World Cup, spending most of his time on the wing. Piutau bagged at least one try in every game he played, including both the knockout matches, finishing the competition with six in total. This total was matched by only two other players in the competition, giving the world a sign of things to come from Piutau. He went on to represent NZ at Sevens and on the international circuit and managed 41 caps for the Blues. Piutaua was famously left out of New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup squad, having signed for Ulster. He is now one of the highest paid players in the world and will play for Bristol in the upcoming season.
Gareth Anscombe – Wales
Given the quality of five-eighth talent in the squad, it was a glowing appraisal by Dave Rennie to instigate Anscombe as his key playmaker for the U20 competition. Anscombe ended the competition as the leading point scorer with 84 to his name and was heralded as the answer to the Blues’ woes at 10. Unfortunately, coach John Kirwan decided that Anscombe was not the man they needed leading the team and Anscombe headed to the Chiefs where he played a big part in the victorious 2013 championship run. With his eye on international rugby, Anscombe shifted to Welsh side Cardiff Blues (a team he’s now captained on numerous occasions) and is now battling it out with Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell for the starting 10 role in the Wales national side.
Lima Sopoaga – New Zealand
The third player in the squad to go on and play first five for an international side, Sopoaga was camped at 12 for the U20 tournament. Sopoaga showed plenty of promise in his first year at Wellington in 2010 but took a little bit of time to establish himself at the next level. Sopoaga signed for the Highlanders in 2011 and due to some middling form and a few bad injuries, he mainly backed up Colin Slade. It wasn’t until Slade left that Sopoaga was able to establish himself as the top playmaker for the Highlanders in 2014 and he went on to earn his first international cap in one of the hardest locations to play, Johannesburg, in 2015. Given Barrett’s hold on the number 10 jersey for the All Blacks, Sopoaga has now signed for the Wasps for next season – but he’s the kind of player that could easily be starting at first five for any country in the world.
Francis Saili – New Zealand
Saili was used all over the backline for the U20s but found his home in the midfield for his senior teams. One of the most promising players to be produced from the Blues region, Saili never really found his feet at the top level but had all the skills required to be a brilliant centre. He made his debut for New Zealand in 2013 but chose to leave the country in 2015 after not locking down a starting position for the All Blacks – perhaps, with a bit of patience, he would still be playing for them now. Regardless, Saili has had reasonable success with Munster and has now relocated to England where he plays for the Harlequins.
TJ Perenara – New Zealand
Perenara was one of the picks of the U20 tournament and was already in Wellington’s books since the year prior. On his Super Rugby debut a year later he scored a hat-trick of tries and he has now comfortably scored the most tries of any halfback in the history of Super Rugby. After making his debut in 2014, Perenara vied with Tawera Kerr-Barlow to back up Aaron Smith in the All Blacks for a number of years but he has firmly entrenched himself as the second in command now – and for a brief period was close to being the number one pick.
Waisake Naholo – New Zealand
Naholo played less of a role in the tournament than some of the other players on this list, starting in only one match. Born in Fiji, Naholo was picked up by the Highlanders in Super Rugby Naholo has slowly been building into an unstoppable force for the Highlanders, but so much competition at the international level has made it difficult for him to lock down a spot in the run onBy Tom Vinicombe side for the All Blacks. Famously, Naholo cracked his fibula before the 2015 Rugby World Cup and was given a prognosis of 3 months but recovered remarkably quickly using some traditional medicine and was ultimately named in the squad.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass