20 Days to Go: From Under-20s to senior success

The most exciting moment before every Guinness Six Nations is anticipating which former age group stars will shine on the biggest stage having made the world sit up and take notice at Under-20s level.

The most exciting moment before every Guinness Six Nations is anticipating which former age group stars will shine on the biggest stage having made the world sit up and take notice at Under-20s level.

So to mark 20 days to go until the 2023 Guinness Six Nations gets underway, we are taking a look at some of those players who starred at age group level and have since gone on to perform for their respective senior sides.

Some of these are now well-established on the Test scene, others are still taking their first steps, but all were star performers in their teens.

Natural born English leaders

As the most successful side in the history of the Six Nations Under-20s, England have produced an endless conveyor belt of talent in recent seasons with an impressive record of four Grand Slams since the competition went from Under-21s to Under-20s in 2008.

Their last clean sweep came in 2021, when the competition was held entirely in Cardiff across five match days, with skipper Jack van Poortvliet pulling the strings from scrum-half.

He already looked like an assured general at that stage, particularly in the opening game when England fought back from 19-3 down to beat France and beat the team who ended up being their closest rivals.

Since then, Van Poortvliet has stepped up and made his debut in a series victory in Australia, before assuming the starting role during the Autumn Nations Series.

He will now have to prove that he is the man for the No.9 jersey to his former club coach Steve Borthwick, but everything he showed as a teenager would indicate that Van Poortvliet is ready for the big time.

Another man hoping to impress Borthwick will be back-rower Ben Earl (pictured above with Michele Lamaro). Also a former England Under-20s skipper, Earl won a Grand Slam in 2017 before leading the team the following year. That year he was called into the England senior squad for the first time, although he had to wait for 2020 to make his debut.

Having dropped down the pecking order, the change of coach could be the chance for last year’s player of the season in England to fulfil the potential that was evident from an early age.

French golden generation now established

France are the reigning Under-20s world champions, a title they have held since 2018. That statistic is somewhat misleading, Covid leading to the competition being paused for three years, but their back-to-back world titles in 2018 and 2019 were evidence of a brilliant crop of youngsters coming through.

In 2018, they also won the Six Nations Under-20s title, avenging their sole defeat to England in the world final. It is little surprise that a host of those players have since broken into the senior set-up, with the likes of Cameron Woki and Romain Ntamack probably the two to have enjoyed the greatest success.

Ntamack broke into the side while still two years underage, and even then, played at the pace of a man with more time than anyone else on the park.

By the time the first world title was won, he had shifted from fly-half to inside centre, but it is back in the No.10 jersey that he is settled for Les Bleus, starting every game of last year’s Grand Slam.

Woki has shifted from the back row to the second row, but it was on the flank that he featured for the Under-20s, the latest in a four-year run of Massy-produced back-rowers after Yacouba Camara, Sekou Macalou and Judicael Cancoriet, all of whom have since gone on to senior honours.

And in terms of great age-group players, the France crop of 2016 might have missed out on a Grand Slam because of a narrow defeat in Wales, but their then-outside centre Damian Penaud announced himself as a real talent with a hat-trick against England in the final round, in a team that also featured future Grand Slam-winning teammates Antoine Dupont and Anthony Jelonch.

Penaud was the superstar though, and seven years later, he has shifted out to the wing, but is among the very best players in his position.

Future bright for impressive Ireland

As the world’s No.1 team at senior level, Ireland are already flying high, and with two Grand Slams in the last four years for the Under-20s, they are showing no sign of slowing down.

The strength of Andy Farrell’s side means that the transition from Under-20s is not easy, so even those standout performers from a clean sweep in 2019 are still largely waiting for their opportunity on the biggest stage.

Some of their predecessors, however, have nailed down places in the side, including a host of the cohort who got to the world final in 2016.

That team had finished third in the Six Nations, but with the likes of James Ryan and Andrew Porter in the pack, and Hugo Keenan and Jacob Stockdale in the back three, it was little surprise that they went onto shine against the best in the world.

That quartet have all kicked on at the highest level, while even when the Under-20s were a little less successful in the two years that followed, one man stood out above the rest. Even by the standard of Ireland back-rowers, of which their seems to be a new superstar every season, Caelan Doris was different, and he has quickly established himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet, whether it is on the flank or at No.8.

Wales players living up to the hype

In 2016, France narrowly missed out on the Six Nations title, England and Ireland contested the world final, but it was Wales who claimed the Grand Slam.

While some of the players from that group have not made it to the highest level, perhaps the biggest disappointment being the sensational Rhun Williams forced to retire through injury, others have lived up to the billing.

As a young second row at the Ospreys, Adam Beard had to deal with comparisons with the great Alun Wyn Jones. While he almost certainly will not match the achievements of his illustrious teammate, a three-time Grand Slam winner and the most capped player of all time, Beard is already a standout for Wales.

His performances in the 2021 Championship run were enough to earn a call-up to the Lions that summer, ironically in place of the injured Jones.

More recently, the collective performances have not been as strong, but there have been some notable individual performances, particularly from centre Joe Hawkins, who followed up some blockbuster displays in the Six Nations Under-20s Summer Series as Wales reached the final, by earning a first senior cap in November.

Expect the powerful centre to add to that international experience in the coming weeks.

Italian faith in youth paying dividends

Franco Smith made the bold decision after the 2019 World Cup to embark on a youth movement with Italy, handing the keys of the team to a group of callow youngsters.

While the results did not follow immediately, the likes of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi now look comfortable on the Test stage, having been given their chance while still eligible for the Under-20s.

That duo had already impressed with a win away in Wales in 2020 for the Under-20s, with Garbisi repeating the feat in Cardiff last year for the full side.

Flanker Michele Lamaro looked a natural leader for the improving Azzurrini, who were also able to string impressive performances together at the World Championships in 2018 and 2019, with Danilo Fischetti’s displays at loosehead prop indicating a huge future for the youngster.

Those promising results are now being matched at senior level, with that win in Cardiff, as well as the historic victory over Australia last November hinting at a bright future for the Azzurri.

Standout performers breaking through for Scotland

Recent Under-20s form for Scotland has been disappointing with successive winless campaigns after two victories in the abandoned 2020 Championship.

Despite those struggles though, a number of players have managed to stand out, particularly in the back three. Ollie Smith and Rufus McLean both looked like dangerous threats and the former might have the chance to build on that in the Championship if Stuart Hogg is not back yet, while the latter seems a natural option to replace the injured Darcy Graham.

If they can match the impact of Rory Darge, another sensational performer at Under-20s level, in last year’s Championship, they will have done well. The flanker was simply outstanding against France a year ago, and but for injury would surely be in line for a starting role this year.

And one man who did enjoy plenty of success at age-group level was centre Cameron Redpath. The son of former Scotland skipper Bryan was plying his trade in England and wore the red rose for the Under-20s before making the call to play for the country of his father at senior level, making a statement on debut with a first Scottish win at Twickenham since 1983. After being slowed by injuries in the two years since, he will have a big role to play once again in 2023.