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Is SANZAAR's new under 20 tournament the silver bullet for player development, or a step too late?

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Roar Rookie
26th July, 2023

Over this last under 20s Championship much has been made of the approach taken by the European and non-European sides.

Things such as France being bigger, which is not supported by the statistics, and both France and Ireland were average compared to everyone else.

Another thing SANZAAR finally has noticed is the need for an under 20s SANZAAR tournament leading up to the June event.

A lot has been made of the massive benefit of the under 20s 6 Nations, but this has been running as long as the Championship so this is not the only reason why. My two previous articles have looked at French Club – rugby this will look at European underage tournaments.

1. Overall results

Team = Average placement/2016-19/2012-15/2008-11 (Difference between 2008-2011 and 2016-2019)

#1 New Zealand = 2.6/4.3/2.5/1.0 (+3.3)#12 Fiji = 12.3/14.3/12.8/10.0 (+4.3)
#2 England = 2.6/2.5/2.8/2.5 (0.0)#13 Japan = 13.4/12.5/13.3/14.5 (-2.0)
#3 South Africa = 3.0/3.3/2.3/3.5 (+0.5)#14 Tonga = 15.5/19.5/15.5/11.5 (+8.0)
#4 France = 4.7/3.8/5.3/5.0 (-1.2)#15 Georgia = 15.5/9.8/16.8/20.0 (-10.2)
#5 Australia = 4.8/4.8/6.3/3.5 (+1.3)#16 Canada = 16.8/19.0/16.3/15.3 (+3.7)
#6 Wales = 5.8/6.8/4.5/6.0 (+0.8)#17 Uruguay = 16.9/16.5/17.8/16.5 (0.0)
#7 Argentina = 7.2/6.0/7.0/8.5 (-2.5)#18 USA = 17.9/20.0/15.3/18.5 (+1.5)
#8 Ireland = 7.3/7.5/6.0/8.5 (-1.0)#19 Namibia = 18.9/16.5/19.3/21.0 (-4.5)
#9 Scotland = 9.3/8.8/9.3/9.8 (-1.0)#20 Portugal = 19.4/15.5/19.8/23.0 (-7.5)
#10 Italy = 10.9/9.0/11.8/12.0 (-3.0)#21 Spain = 21.1/19.3/21.0/23.0 (-3.7)
#11 Samoa = 11.5/15.0/9.8/9.8 (+5.2)

As not every team qualifies each year, those who failed to qualify in 2008 and 2009 were given a rank of 25, while those 2010-2019 were given a rank of 21. This is because the number of teams dropped from 24 to 20 across both the trophy and Championship.

Teams such as Argentina who have a minus number implies they are getting better, while those with a positive figure like Australia are getting worse.

First what we see is teams like England and South Africa have had very little movement over the 12 years on their average placing and both again this year were in the final 4. Another thing you notice is that apart from New Zealand and Italy, none of other Tier 1 Nations (6 Nations and Rugby Championship) have really changed much.

New Zealand’s issue is they were so good from 2008-2015, they were eventually going to drop. The worry for them is where will they balance out. Italy have been a big improver and since securing promotion in 2014 have stayed in the Championship. They have yet to break out of the bottom 4, but at least they are in the Championship now.

(Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The big one that most will have spotted is Georgia, who struggled to win the European spot for many years but when they did qualify they generally did well. In 2016 they played in the Championship for the first time and have never looked back. This year they finished 8th, their highest ever performance. But they are not the only European teams making improvements and that is what I want to look at.

When we look at the Pacific Island and North American teams they have made a continuous decline as they lost their places in the Championship and were soon fighting it out with each other just to get into the Trophy. Like Europe, sometimes the hard qualification makes the teams better but Samoa and Tonga are really struggling lately.


2. Europe v Everyone else

As I have discussed in other articles and comments, the 6 Nations and SANZAAR are two completely different organisations. Rugby Europe is blessed and cursed to be stuck with the 6 Nations, as I will go into later. SANZAAR has only ever been about the men’s games and nothing else so each union has been left to its own devices to improve underage.

This week SANZAAR announced that they will now start to run an under 20s tournament, believing this will close the gap on France and other European nations, but this is looking at the surface rather than looking under the hood of the European engine.

Maybe it was this tournament that finally made SANZAAR act, or maybe it was in the works all along but not having the four underage teams competing each year has always been a negative for player development. With Italy and Georgia getting wins over Rugby Championship teams this may finally have forced the change.

While watching ‘The Breakdown’ following the Australia v New Zealand series, the person associated with the New Zealand under 20s team discussed how underprepared their props were compared to their Australian counterparts and the 6 Nations teams. But Georgia doesn’t take part in the 6Ns, nor does South Africa, yet one has improved and the other has remained at the top.

(Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

In a previous piece I went over why the French players are better prepared as they were not bigger than other teams (except for Tuilagi) and often were average in most positions, but they played at a much higher level. But it is all Europe that is improving not just France. What Georgia and Italy did this year Spain and Portugal have been doing for he last 4 years to Samoa, Canada, Uruguay etc.


Spain are in the Trophy this year and the big question is will they finish 2nd or 3rd to Samoa. Spain have only been in the Trophy once before and that was 2016 as Georgia moving up to the Championship had allowed the next European team to take a go at the Trophy. They lost in the final to Samoa 38-32 after extra time. Samoa had been in the Championship level for all but 1 of the previous 8 years, so to barely beat a debut team was a shock. Portugal then where at the next 3, picking up 2 finals and a 3rd place finish. In 2019 Japan beat Portugal 35-34 in the final.

When there were 16 teams in the Championship there were 5 or 6 European teams, there are now 6 Europeans with the 7th and 8th best teams most likely to play out the final in the Trophy. Portugal this year are only the 10th best European team this year after the Netherlands got to the European final.

3. The European Engine

Like the World Rugby, SANZAAR believes that having under 20s tournaments are all that is needed to match the European teams, but in reality most teams apart from South Africa and Argentina used to participate in some form of regional competition, be that the Oceania Rugby Under 20 Championship or European qualifiers. The difference is for European teams it is step 2 rather than step 1 of their underage Test journey.

Have you ever wondered how French Clubs are able to spot so many Georgians to be able to bring them into the French academy system? This has powered their underage development or why more and more under 20s are making their senior debut in the European Rugby Championship. One of these players is Alberto Carmona who at 19 has played 5 games for Spain in the Championship where he played 80 minute games against Portugal, Georgia and Romania.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)


He is not with the under 20s (as a senior test player he is not allowed) but is instead doing pre-season with Toulon where he has been since 2022. Carmona came to prominence in the under 18s team for Spain which is where all the top scouts go to pick up the best players. Before he moved to France he was playing in the South of Spain miles away from the spotlight.

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Carmona is not unique, and every year the top 20-30 teams excluding the 6 Nations teams (since 2016) play each other in 3-4 divisions. The best players get to show off on the international stage looking to get picked up by the scouts. The under 18 and under 20s sevens tournaments are no different. If you want to know who is likely to represent Europe in the 2024 under 20s Trophy, take a quick glance at the European under 18s 2022 and 2023 tournaments.

European rugby is copying European soccer for how to get the best players to the best teams and allowing them to show their ability. For SANZAAR they don’t realise that the battles taking place in the 6 Nations under 20s is round two after the same teams played each other in the under 18s. These 18 year olds are made aware of the level they need to attain to be an international. Yes the club structure helps, but it’s the international under 18s that feeds into the system.

4. What should SANZAAR and World Rugby do?

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the European system is now working. When a team like Spain who are only in their second ever Trophy Tournament are looking to make the final, even though teams like Samoa, the USA and Uruguay have much more experience in the tournament.

If Spain had not made it the Netherlands or Portugal would be looking to do the same. No other region can do this because they aren’t blessed with the same benefits.


Europe is richer, smaller and there are a lot more teams than any other region but SANZAAR and World Rugby need to get together and organise some sort of under 18 tournament to go with a 2 divisional under 20s tournament.

If they don’t, more and more European teams are going to get into the Championship and a team like Japan or Fiji will have to run the gauntlet of beating the next European nation to take their place. This will also have a knock on effect for the senior teams.

We have already seen teams like Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal pass teams like Canada, Namibia and possibly the USA. As they get more and more under 20s into professional setups their senior teams are going to get better.

The 6 Nations under 21s started in 2004 when the Under 21s Championship was started by World rugby. That changed to the under 20s in 2008 when World Rugby did the same thing. The European under 18s and under 20s started the same year. If it has taken 20 years for SANZAAR to get under 20s going, hopefully it doesn’t take another 20 years to get an under 18s.

Japan, one of the teams to have improved at under 20s, wants to work with Australia with schoolboys, maybe they understand that this is where it starts.