Top seeds United States and Canada will lead the challenge for IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy (JWRT) honours in Hong Kong next week when the futures stars of world rugby compete for promotion to the 2015 IRB Junior World Championship (JWC) in Italy.
The JWRT tournament, which is being staged in Asia for the first time, kicks off at Hong Kong Football Club on Monday (April 7) with under-20s teams from seven international unions – Canada, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Tonga, USA and Uruguay – joining hosts Hong Kong.
The United States won the 2012 JWRT and were promoted compete in last year’s JWC in France, but were relegated after finishing bottom in the 12-team tournament. They start next week’s JWRT as favourites and are strongly fancied to make an immediate return to the JWC.
“We hope to win our pool matches and qualify for the final,” said USA coach Billy Millard. “We have a young team with 50 per cent of the squad eligible to return next year.
“There are no official under-20 age level leagues or competitions in the USA, so most eligible players are first-year university students with a sprinkling of second-year students and high school players. Most of the USA under-20s squad have come through the USA age-grade system,” Millard explained.
Canada finished runners-up to Italy at last year’s JWRT in Chile and will have 10 players returning from that squad.
Justin Douglas on the wing is a regular starter for the Canada sevens team, while Djustice Sears-Duru is a prop who has already been capped for Canada at senior level, and Matt Mullins is a powerful running No 8.
“We are obviously hoping to win, but to do that we are aware we must win every game against quality opposition,” Canada head coach Mike Shelley said.
“Under-20s rugby has improved over the last couple of years, coinciding with the development of our Centre of Excellence in Victoria, British Columbia. This is our national training base and has allowed serious players the opportunity to relocate in order to spend more time training together.”
Asia’s best hope of victory lies with the tournament third seeds, Japan, one of the most accomplished teams in JWRT history, having reached the final three times from 2010 to 2012. Now playing in their fifth JWRT event they hold the all-time record for team points scored with 505.
Japan qualified after an emphatic win at the Asian Rugby Football Union Under-19s Championship in Taiwan, where they scored an impressive 216 points, while conceding only 14.
“Last year we finished third in the tournament but we want to win it this time,” said Japan coach Keisuke Sawaki. “There will be a few players, not many, taking part from last year’s team. But they all have the potential to play at a higher national level or in our professional league.”
Uruguay will represent South America in Hong Kong after beating Chile 25-7 in the regional (CONSUR) Junior A Championship last September. While Georgia earned their berth after beating Belgium 32-6 in the European Championship final last November.
Less-fancied Namibia and hosts Hong Kong are determined to push themselves and may even pull off a few shocks. Namibia qualified after beating Kenya 51-8 in the final of the CAR Championship in South Africa last September.
Namibia coach Jan Dames remains confident despite the absence of a league for this age group and the difficulties in bringing players together for training.
“Many of our under-18s players go to South African universities for study. The players who stay in Namibia fall in with the national squad for practice and development,” he explained.
“From our present under-20s squad, flanker Janko Venter, fly-half Chris Arries and prop Louis van der Westhuizen all represented the Namibia national team last year. We’ll also have 11 players from last year’s team.”
The home side will be looking to the likes of back row Chris Maize and flanker Raef Morrison for inspiration. The talented duo were involved with Hong Kong’s senior squad that played at the Zimbabwe Sevens earlier this month, with Morrison making an impressive debut at the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens last weekend.
Lock Mike Parfitt, who will captain the squad, was training with the Hong Kong 15s squad before the international series against Belgium last December, but had to withdraw through illness.
“We’ll be going in as underdogs for every game but we’ll be looking to be very competitive, if not get the win. I’ve a lot of confidence in the personnel that we have,” Hong Kong coach Pale Tauti said.
All JWRT matches take place at Hong Kong Football Club with pool games scheduled for April 7, 11 and 15 at 1pm, 3pm, 5pm and 7pm. The finals will take place at the same times on April 19. Entry is free to all.