Rugby: Imposing under-20s team named for opener

Under 20s coach Scott Robertson.
Under 20s coach Scott Robertson.

There is an imposing look to the New Zealand side named to face Georgia in their World Rugby Under 20 Championship opener in Salford tomorrow morning.

Head coach Scott Robertson and assistants Craig Philpott and Willie Rickards have included five Super Rugby players in the run-on 15 as they begin their defence of the title won in Italy last year.

New Zealand open their campaign against first-timers Georgia, who qualified this year by winning the tier two World Rugby Trophy competition.

Robertson feels the Super Rugby players have brought both leadership and professionalism to a young team that also includes nine players who will be eligible to play again next year.

"The Super Rugby boys have been superb around leadership and the professional day to day conduct, and they understand how a professional environment works," explained Robertson.

"They've definitely lifted the standard and improved the willingness of the young players. As a coach, that's what you want, the experienced players in the team to be driving it, because we've got nine young players who will be looking up to them.

"These guys bring their leadership and they understand the game well, so we've got a really good balance.

"Our captain Leni Apisai brings strengths from the Hurricanes and Shaun Stevenson has come in from being in a Chiefs environment and has had a couple of opportunities for them.

"TJ Va'a has also come in from the Hurricanes and, although he hasn't been given much opportunity to play this year because of a knee injury, he's in great condition. He creates a good combination with Blues player Sam Nock," added Robertson.

Highlanders centre Patelesio (Sio) Tomkinson also debuts for the team and has been widely tipped as one of the tournament players to watch, while Jordan Trainor, who has been involved in the Blues squad, sits out the first game. The Jacobson brothers - Mitch and Luke - suit up in the loose forwards, while Waikato's Sefo Kautai, who missed last month's Oceania series in Australia, starts at tighthead prop.

Robertson expects some tough competition from all three Pool A opponents Georgia, Ireland and Wales, and has placed a great emphasis on ensuring his team is well prepared to take on each challenge.

"We arrived a day early to acclimatise and get our body clocks right. We're making sure we prepare well and we've really taken on the learnings from last year - about the basic pressure, confronting the times when things are tough, but importantly to enjoy touring together," said Robertson.

"Our game planning doesn't change very much, it's still 80:20, 80% yourself and 20% them. We really respect everyone when we prepare to play them. For opposition players, they are going to play the test match of their lives because they want to play against and beat New Zealand, and so it's really important we respect those we play against.

"It's the first time we've come up against Georgia. They love anything in the contact area, they love a drive, they love a scrum, and they're very similar to an Argentinian or French team. They're big and strong - it'll be a bit of Greco-Roman wrestling!"

The match against Georgia, being played at AJ Bel Stadium, Salford, kicks off at 7.45pm local time (Wednesday, 6.45am NZT). The clash will be broadcast live on SKY Sport 1 from 6.40am.

The tournament kicks off with Japan facing South Africa, though do not expect a repeat of the RWC 2015 result. In New Zealand's pool, Wales faces Ireland. Last year's finalists England meet Italy.

NZ Under 20s squad v Georgia: Shaun Stevenson, Caleb Makene, Sio Tomkinson, Jordie Barrett, Jonah Lowe, TJ Va'a, Sam Nock, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Mitch Jacobson, Luke Jacobson, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Quinten Strange, Sefo Kautai, Leni Apisai (c), Ayden Johnstone

Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Shaun Stodart, Alex Fidow, Hamish Dalzell, Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a, Jonathan Taumateine, Stephen Perofeta, Malo Tuitama

- NZ Herald

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