Coach predicts NZ Under-20s squad to shine
The New Zealand Under-20s team are hot favourites to be restored to the top of the junior rugby world at the IRB Junior World Championship, which starts on Monday, after a two-year title drought.
The Kiwis were undefeated in the first four years of the tournament, which was created when the IRB combined its Under-19 and Under-21 competitions in 2008, but four loses in the past two years have seen them fall to second and fourth in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
New Zealand Under-20s selector Chris Bean said this year's side was just as good as the teams that won the title but were under more pressure.
"They will put their best performance out there but their desire is to win it, not to finish second," he said.
"I think there is more pressure not to be that team that has let the jersey down and has let those other successful teams down.
"Playing at home is an advantage because there is less travel, less headaches with having to manoeuvre around a country that looks unfamiliar to them and there will be more friends, family and maybe their old schools cheering them on."
But the tournament will not go all New Zealand's way.
France was impressive during their grand slam performance in the Under 20s Six Nations earlier this year while defending champions England and fellow 2013 finalists Wales also have strong teams.
South Africa, who won the tournament in 2012, have picked a huge team that is strong up-front and Australia has four Super Rugby players in their side.
The New Zealanders, who are in the same pool as Samoa, Scotland and South Africa, are relative lightweights compared with the other teams.
Tau Koloamatangi is the only prop in the squad who is more than 110 kilograms.
The Baby Boks will be able to trot out a pair of 130kg bookends in Thomas du Toit and Wilco Louw while Samoa have 120kg twins Andrew and Anthony Lemalu in their front row along with hulking 135kg, 2.07m lock Cameron Skelton.
But the size disadvantage did not worry Bean.
"Size-wise our forwards might not match up but if we can account for that with speed and agility around the park with a very fast forward pack, that might work to our advantage."
New Zealand's backline is packed with dangerous options. Crusader Mitchell Drummond will head into the tournament as the favourite to start at halfback but faces a tough inter-squad battle.
"[Drummond] is very fast and elusive at the base of the scrum, he can just open up a game with his speed," Bean said. "He has good vision and a good relationship with the 10s but it is not going to go all his way because Josh Renton is another quality halfback who will challenge him because they are similar and then there is Leon Fukofuka, who is completely different in every aspect from the other two.
"He is more robust and has more of a loose forward-build so it will be a nice change of character if they rotate him off the bench."
Fukofuka is better known as the star of a Powerade television advertisement in which Ma'a Nonu and Israel Dagg show up on his doorstep to teach him the perfect spiral kick. Outside that trio, experienced captain Simon Hickey will lead the team around the field from first five and his Blues team-mate Tevita Li will be dangerous out wide.
Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown will be a key player in the backs as will NPC players Jackson Garden-Bachop and Vincent Tavae-Aso.
In the forwards, hookers Hame Faiva and James O'Reilly are the only players who have NPC experience but Bean said they should not be underestimated.
"Hame is definitely one [forward to keep an eye on] with his experience," he said. "There is a young loose forward in Mitchell Jacobsen who is robust and not afraid to get into the thick of things and No 8 Tom Sanders from Canterbury is a good prospect."
New Zealand's key match will be its clash with South Africa during the pool stages at North Harbour Stadium on June 6.
Bean was confident this side would be the one to return New Zealand to the winner's podium.
"This side is good enough to win it. It has been a very thorough and robust selection process to get to this point and the players have received outstanding coaching that is position specific."
AT A GLANCE
JUNIOR WORLD CUP
Pool A: Australia, Argentina, England, Italy
Pool B: Fiji, France, Ireland, Wales
Pool C: NZ, South Africa, Scotland, Samoa
Semifinals: June 15, Albany, Auckland
Final: June 20, Eden Park, Auckland
NEW ZEALAND MATCHES
vs Samoa at Albany, Monday night, 7.35pm
vs South Africa at Albany, Friday night, 7.35pm
vs Scotland, Pukekohe, June 10, 7.35pm