On Saturday, France became only the third team in Under 20 World Cup history to retain the title, defeating Australia 24-23 in Rosario. Remarkably however, the headline result came not from the final, but the 11th placed playoff, in which Scotland became the first tier one nation to be relegated from the U-20’s elite championship since Italy in 2012, having conceded 59 points to Fiji.
Resultingly, next year, they will play in the tier two ‘Trophy’ competition, against sides such as Uruguay, Brazil and Portugal. This is an embarrassing blow for Scottish rugby, with coach Carl Hogg admitting his disappointment, conceding Scotland were, “pulled apart” by the speed, pace and footwork of the Fijians. Scotland also slipped to defeat against Georgia and Italy earlier in the tournament, which will go down as their worst ever.
At youth level, this poor performance is symptomatic of a game that is ailing. Stunningly, 2018 statistics from the Barbarian Conference of Scottish youth rugby, at U-16 level, show a match fulfillment rate of just 42%. Likewise, in the Galant conference, at the same age group, just 55% of scheduled games were eventually played. Given the game in Scotland is played by around only 15,000 individuals, many will be wondering whether it is time to temper expectations regarding Scottish youth rugby. Worries will be exacerbated by the reality that Scotland are increasingly reliant upon dual qualified players; this year they had more players born outside of their borders than any other Six Nations side.
Six Nations champions at U-20 level, Ireland will be disappointed with their eventual 8th place finish, slipping to defeat against a relatively poor New Zealand in the 7th place playoff. Nevertheless, they competed gamely against eventual finalists Australia in the groups, despite playing with just 14 men for the vast majority of the encounter, after a rash and reckless high tackle saw a man red carded. For them therefore, the problems appear more circumstantial than systematic.
In the case of Wales, on the other hand, although they finished in 6th place, questions must inevitably arise regarding their defeat at the hands of England. The relationship between English and Welsh rugby is increasingly entwined, with west country clubs such as Gloucester, who enjoy ties to Hartpury College, capable of tempting the most talented Welsh youths, such as U-18 star Louis Zammit-Rees to play across the border. Likewise, scrumhalf Rhys Carrie has recently joined Saracens. Therefore, given the economic imbalance between English and Welsh rugby, it is tempting to view the result as indicative of a broader superiority of the English set up over that of Wales. The Premiership also allows the blooding of young talent, such as Marcus Smith, Fraser Dingwall, Alex Mitchell, Luke James and the Curry twins, to a greater degree than the Welsh provincial set up. In England, capable youngsters often progress through the ‘A’ league, or via loan moves to Championship clubs, before making senior debuts. In comparison, the Welsh Premiership lacks the quality and intensity that many young talents crave.
Finally, having retained their title, France continue to juxtapose excellent pools of talent against poor first team performances. However, this must surely soon change. In recent years, the emergence of stars such as Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Antoine Dupont has offered hope that the fortunes of French rugby could be set to shift. This year, the playing group was led by the excellent Arthur Vincent, a veteran of last year’s victory, with two other remnants from the 2018 triumph, the indomitable Jordan Joseph, of Racing, player of the tournament last year, and fly half Louis Carbonnel, looking particularly impressive.
Ultimately, whether the French are able to convert what is clearly a capable group of players into a successful senior side will depend on the correct coaching and leadership at the highest echelons, for it is not as if they do not have high levels of ability at their disposal already. Good players do not necessarily a good team make. For Wales and Scotland in particular, the links between decaying grassroots, weak finances and a poor showing in this year’s tournament must cause alarm.
Written by Joe Ronan