1. Thomas du Toit – South Africa
It’s a testament to du Toit’s talent that he saw off competition from England’s Daniel Hobbs-Awoyemi and Ireland’s Peter Dooley for this spot. The impressive young loosehead was included in the Sharks’ Super Rugby training squad this season, and although he ultimately dropped down to their Vodacom Cup squad, he is a player the coaching staff thinks very highly of. If they can retain him, he should emerge as Tendai Mtawawira’s long-term successor in Durban.
2. Malcolm Marx – South Africa
Unsurprisingly South Africa have multiple representatives in the front row. Marx has represented the Golden Lions in this year’s Vodacom Cup but was also included in their Super Rugby squad. The hooker has followed a well-trod path by coming to the front row via the back row and is a force with ball in hand as well as at the set piece.
3. Biyi Alo – England
The rampaging prop has been making a name for himself in the England U18s and Saracens Academy and will now get an opportunity to test himself against a number of proficient looseheads at the JWC. England’s gameplan at age grade rugby is often to outmuscle their opponents and Alo will be key to this, especially with Scott Wilson not amongst those travelling to New Zealand.
4. Maro Itoje – England
I can pay Itoje no bigger compliment than he is the most dominant player I have ever seen in age grade rugby. Prior to his bursting onto the scene, that accolade rested with the Savea brothers and Luke Cowan-Dickie, but the lock’s rampaging performances in this year’s U20 Six Nations were truly breathtaking. He can also play on the blindside, and it was at this position that he made his professional debut for Saracens against Leicester recently. Remember his name.
5. Sean O’Brien – Ireland
He might be living in the shadow of his more famous name-sake right now, but O’Brien is a very exciting talent who could be playing alongside the aforementioned namesake before too long. A vital component of Ireland U20 Six Nations campaign, O’Brien will be targeting advancement at Connacht before he even starts to think about the full international side, and an impressive showing in New Zealand this summer will help him do just that.
6. Sean McMahon – Australia
McMahon’s form has fluctuated this season, but considering he’s a 19-year old playing for one of Super Rugby’s least consistent franchises (Melbourne Rebels), that’s hardly surprising. Nevertheless, his experience at the highest club level in the Southern Hemisphere will serve him extremely well this summer as he bids to help Australia buck their frustratingly poor record at this level of the game.
7. Gus Jones – England
The openside started his first game for England U20s in this year’s U20 Six Nations against Wales, scoring four tries in the process, as well as setting up two further tries for his teammates. Regardless of the level of the rugby, that’s damn impressive. Jones will hope that performance was enough to lock down a place alongside Ross Moriarty and Joel Conlon in a competitive England back row this summer. The young Wasp idolises Richie McCaw, and where better to make a statement as a young openside than in New Zealand?
8. Matt Peni – New Zealand
The trend of monstrous, ball-carrying eights taking over world rugby will continue in New Zealand this summer, as Peni brings his considerable frame to the fray. He has relatively little experience compared to some of the other loose forwards in the New Zealand squad, so his selection in the first XV is certainly not guaranteed, but the impact he could have off the bench is frightening.
9. Callum Braley – England
Age grade squads have suffered recently from a dearth of top class talent at the scrum-half position, but Braley, England’s captain, reverses that trend. A good distributor and dangerous runner around the fringes, Braley has first XV experience with Bristol and should keep opposition defences on their toes throughout the competition.
10. Simon Hickey – New Zealand
Arguably the most technically refined player at the tournament, Hickey has been making a name for himself with a number of eye-catching performances for the Blues in Super Rugby. It may be early in his career, but cries that Hickey will one day represent New Zealand at the highest level are already growing. New Zealand will be favourites given their home advantage and plethora of talent, but no player will be more vital to their hopes than Hickey.
11. Sergeal Peterson – South Africa
Peterson burst onto the Super Rugby scene last season, scoring two tries in his debut for the Southern Kings. Injury denied Peterson the opportunity to represent South Africa at the 2013 JWC, but he is set to wreak havoc in New Zealand. A competitor in the 100m at the World Youth Championships, the winger will relish any one-on-ones that come his way.
12. Handre Pollard – South Africa
Pollard is more of a fly-half than a centre, but his versatility allows me to include both him and Hickey in the same XV. A sublime performance in the Bulls’ recent 28-12 victory over the Stormers, in which Pollard kicked 20 points, has already led people to assign him as the next hope of South African rugby. These calls may be premature, especially with Johan Goosen just 21 years old, but Pollard is certainly extremely talented.
13. Tom Stephenson – England
The outside centre is arguably the pick of the bunch of an exciting group of backs coming through at Northampton, which also includes Jamie Elliot, Will Hooley and Tom Collins. Stephenson has an impressive step on him as well as a sneaky change of pace, making him a nice compliment to the usual power carriers England opt for in their midfield at this level.
14. Tevita Li – New Zealand
Li joins his club teammate Hickey in the New Zealand squad and has, at times, set Super Rugby alight this season with intelligent lines, deceptive power and searing speed. Given his physical talents and experience in Super Rugby, I’m sure I’m not the only one to pencil him in as top try scorer this summer. Comparisons with Jonah Lomu are not too outlandish, and the Tongan-born winger certainly has a very bright future in the game.
15. Tauasosi Tuimavave – New Zealand
This spot would have gone to Wales’ Hallam Amos had he not been called up for their ‘Probables’ vs ‘Possibles’ trial match, but Tuimavave is a very exciting prospect and benefits as a result. The versatile back set records in 2013 when he accounted for 50 points (six tries, 10 conversions) in a club match in New Zealand. Again, regardless of the level of rugby, that’s damn impressive. New Zealand have a habit of producing sensational fullbacks and it looks like another one is about to roll off their conveyor belt.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images