PNG to face Italy in JWRT opener
The IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy kicks off in the Russian capital Moscow on Tuesday with some mouth-watering matches in prospect, not least the Pool A encounter between defending champions Romania and 2008 winners Uruguay.
Italy will face the young and exciting Papua New Guinea in the other opening match, with the opening day also seeing Canada face Zimbabwe and hosts Russia tackle Japan in Pool B.
The eight teams have arrived in Russia harbouring different levels of expectations, from the realism of Papua New Guinea - one of the revelations of the 2009 tournament in Kenya - to the cautious optimism of Romania and Uruguay.
Romania are keen to repeat their success of 12 months ago, when they beat USA 23-15 in a thrilling final in Nairobi, but know that the presence of Italy, Uruguay, Japan and Canada will make their task a lot harder this time around.
"Of course we would like to repeat last year's performance to finish first and qualify for the elite group, but we know it is going to be much harder," Romania team manager Rares Manolache.
Coach Alexandru Achim, a former Romanian international with plenty of experience coaching at Age Grade level, added: "We have lost several key players with injury in the weeks prior to the tournament, but will do our best.
"This is a talented generation and I have complete confidence in them. This is a solid team, with a strong pack led by captain Petru Tamba, in his first year of Under 20 rugby, and talented backs keen to show their ability."
Uruguay, as the inaugural Trophy winners, took their place among the elite nations in last year's IRB Junior World Championship in Japan and with their appetite whetted are hungry to return to the top level of Under 20 rugby.
"This year's generation is regarded as very talented by all the experts in Uruguay and we expect them to do well," admitted manager Marcelo Pandolfi, who occupied the same role for the title winning side of 2008.
Several members of that squad have now graduated to the Uruguayan national side, including Jeronimo Etcheverry who played a key role in Los Teros' Rugby World Cup qualifying matches against USA last year.
Tommaso Benvenuti, a dashing outside centre for Benetton Treviso, will lead Italy's challenge and is one of 13 players with the experiences of a Junior World Championship to call upon, not to mention the Under Six Nations earlier this year.
"We hope to win the tournament and return to the Championship," admitted manager Franco Pavan. "We have had a very good build up in the Six Nations where, although we did not win any matches, we played well at an elevated level.
"We hope to use the experience we have acquired to good effect here in Moscow to win the competition."
Brimming with experience
Italy, unlike their title rivals, are in a privileged position as they know they will be playing in the IRB Junior World Championship 2011 regardless of the outcome in Moscow, having already been announced as tournament hosts.
If Italy succeed Romania as champions they will simply replace the side finishing 12th in the IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina next month. However, if Italy fail to lift the title, then both they and the champions will play at the elite level in 2011, replacing the bottom two sides in the Championship.
Italy, though, will not be underestimating the challenge of Papua New Guinea, who finished sixth on their Trophy debut a year ago after thrilling the crowds with their run everything game plan and the memorable tries it produced.
"We finished sixth last year in Kenya and wish to improve on that," insisted Sydney Wesley, the Papua New Guinea manager. "We have a good team, with a new generation of players, probably more talented and keener to do well than the previous Under 20 team."
Captain Jackson Pato Junior will be a player to watch for Papua New Guinea, as will their scrum half Nigel Genia, whose two older brothers Will and Frank wear the number nine jersey for Australia and PNG respectively.
Canada coach Tim Murdy is also eager to keep his players grounded, knowing that getting carried away with thoughts of securing a return to the Junior World Championship could be their downfall.
"Our long term goal is to try to win the Trophy and move back up into the Tier 1 competition," explained Murdy. "But first thing's first, we're looking as far ahead as Zimbabwe right now. We have to keep things in perspective, taking it one game at a time."
One eye on the future
Zimbabwe are making their first appearance in an International Rugby Board Age Grade tournament since the IRB Under 19 World Championship in 2007 and have "great spirit and togetherness" according to manager Jeannine Bryant.
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Japan, the other member of the quartet who dropped out of the Championship lat year following a restructure from 16 to 12 teams, not only have their sights set on the silverware in Moscow, but also a target much further down the road.
"Many of these boys will form the core of the Japan team who compete in Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. This is why this tournament is very important for us in so many ways," said manager Takashi Hasunuma.
Russia also have an eye on development, keen to expose their players to international fixtures and hoping to pick up a few victories along the way to give the Moscow fans something to cheer about.
Finally Russia manager Valeri Bobrov, a former international fullback, pointed out that for Russia, qualified as the Host Union, the tournament is a very significant experience, which should enable the players and the coaching staff to assess the quality of the personnel for the major tasks lying ahead.
"For us, development is the main priority as we are trying to expose our players to a higher level of competition," said Valeri Bobrov, the Under 20 manager and a former Russian international full back. "We aim to be competitive in the tournament, and if we win any matches it will great, but it will be a bonus."