Under-20 champs breeding ground for greats
Three years feels like an awful long time for the New Zealand under-20 rugby team.
It was 2011. Summer in Italy. Ten thousand packed into Stadio Plebiscito for the IRB junior world championship final. New Zealand beat England 33-22 to become world champions.
Since then New Zealand have failed to get into the winner's circle on the big stage.
Having won each of the first four world championship titles, New Zealand lost to South Africa in the final in 2012, and then finished fourth in 2013.
On home soil, New Zealand are ready to get back on top.
"There is always huge pressure to do well in this team," coach Chris Boyd said.
"Given it's in our own country it's even more important. There is no travel component, the environment will be great being at home with family around and everything.
"Even if we were overseas it's important that we do well anyway, and we're in pretty good shape."
New Zealand completed a 10-day training block at Mt Maunganui on Thursday, having hammered the Chiefs Development team in their final training run 47-19.
That result was without the help of Blues backs Simon Hickey and Tevita Li, who joined the camp as it moved to Auckland.
Boyd said that while Hickey, Li and Chiefs winger Anton Lienert-Brown have already played at Super Rugby level, they won't necessarily be the stars of the New Zealand team.
Of the class of 2011, Charles Piutau, Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane, Steven Luatua, TJ Perenara, Francis Saili, Luke Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Brad Shields and Brodie Rettalick have all been involved with the All Blacks.
That doesn't include Super Rugby players Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo, Jason Emery, Brad Weber, Gareth Anscombe, Codie Taylor and Ben Tameifuna.
The under-20 competition is a breeding ground for future All Blacks, and Boyd said it's a chance for some players to secure a Super Rugby contract for next season.
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, the ambassador for the under-20 world championships in New Zealand, said there will be future stars gracing our rugby fields over the next three weeks.
"There are too many good players that will take the field to pick out just one," Lomu said.
"I'd just encourage people to get out and watch because these guys will be genuine stars of the game in the next few years.
"Looking at the New Zealand team, there's a good chance one or two of the guys could play at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. That's the calibre we're talking about."
Lomu never played in Baby Blacks side when he came through the ranks, but did play for New Zealand Schoolboys as a 17-year-old.
That team featured future greats like Jeff Wilson, Anton Oliver and Justin Marshall among others.
"I was fortunate to play alongside guys like that. It just shows that these guys can and will be stars in the future. It's always been the case."
That potential isn't limited to the New Zealand squad.
South Africa have Southern Kings winger Sergeal Petersen in the squad after a standout campaign in Super Rugby last year.
Australian captain Sean McMahon plays as a flanker for the Melbourne Rebels, while Welsh wing Harry Robinson already has two full caps for Wales.
It's a big turnaround for the under-20 world championships, with teams taking it more seriously than ever in building their teams for the future.
"In 2010 Ireland almost decided they wouldn't send a team," Boyd said. "New Zealand dominated in the early days, but now it's become a really hard tournament for us. There is a massive correlation between under-20s and the All Blacks, and that's one reason we try so hard and work for this tournament."
AT A GLANCE
New Zealand get their Under-20 World Championship campaign started tomorrow night, playing Samoa at North Harbour Stadium from 7.35pm.
They play there again on Friday at 7.35pm, taking on South Africa, before a final pool match against Scotland at Pukekohe's Growers Stadium next Tuesday from 7.35pm.
Sunday Star Times