A funny thing happened at Henley a few days ago. Wales trounced England at rugby. "You did your country proud, you did yourselves proud,'' Kevin Hopkins, the coach, told his men. Actually, not so much men as boys, albeit very large and mature ones.
The previous week, when the All Blacks scored eight tries to nil against Wales in the senior international in Hamilton, the contest was inevitably described as men against boys. This cannot be the case in the IRB Under-21 World Cup, a tournament designed to identify the next generation of international players. It is an important rung on the representative ladder, and as most of the participants are budding or indeed proven professionals the competition is fierce, standards high.
The tournament was launched in South Africa last year when the hosts beat Australia in the final. The Baby Boks, under the coach Jake White, had never lost to Australia or New Zealand but that record was broken at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford last Wednesday when they were undone by the Baby Blacks.
In round two (12 countries were split into four pools) New Zealand, always trailing, struck at the death to beat France 26-23 at Iffley Road in what was a minor classic. Jean-Claude Skrela, the manager of France, was distraught.
Nor did his mood improve a few days later when New Zealand and Australia managed to come up with a 37-37 draw at Newbury, sharing a sufficient number of tries to earn bonus points that effectively locked France out of the final. That will be contested today in Oxford between New Zealand, who defeated South Africa 38-16 in the semi-finals, and Australia, who beat Argentina 48-25. The Baby Boks play Argentina today for third place while Wales meet France to settle fifth and sixth.
Conspicuous by their absence from the leaderboard are England, the hosts of this showpiece yet up the Thames Valley without a paddle. They play Scotland today, also at Newbury, to determine who finishes seventh or eighth.
"We were not technically competent,'' said the red rose coach Jon Callard. Considering the downright rude health of the game in England this is a curious admission. No sooner had Clive Woodward's team pulled off a unique double in New Zealand and Australia than the young roses were losing to the young Wallabies 52-22 in the opening round of the Under-21 World Cup.
England, whose squad includes Adryan Winnan, Marcel Garvey and Chris Bell, all highly rated by their clubs Saracens, Gloucester and Harlequins, hammered Japan in their second match but suffered further defeats to France and Wales.
The recognised age group in England used to be Under-23, but Don Rutherford, the former RFU technical administrator, brought it in line with developments in New Zealand. In 1989 Dick Best coached the first England Under-21 squad, which included Neil Back, Jason Leonard and Tim Rodber and four years later there was a hugely successful tour of Australia. "Bring me back one or two players capable of playing for England,'' was Rutherford's message. Of the party of 30, 10 became British Lions.
So England have a pedigree at this level yet Callard noted: "The southern hemisphere sides are physically more developed and their pace and intensity makes it difficult to compete against them.''
Some have Super 12 experience. Take Australia's 20-year-old flanker Rocky Elsom. Elsom played union at high school in Brisbane but then signed a rugby league contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Sydney. Last September he sent a video to Bob Dwyer, who selected him for the New South Wales Waratahs Super 12 squad.
"My first season back in union has gone much better than I thought,'' Elsom said: "I've learned an amazing amount and I've matured as a player.'' Having featured for Australia in the junior World Cup it is possible that Elsom could appear in the senior version in his home country in four months time.
If England's mediocrity is odd, Wales's success is odder still. Last Wednesday at Henley,where Woodward cut his coaching teeth, the embryo dragons put six tries past England in 44-27 victory. The sparse audience included a bemused llama - a circus was on an adjoining field - and a soaring red kite. The red roses never looked like soaring although Callard points out that 18 of his squad will still be eligible next year.
In fact, despite all the problems besetting the Principality, Wales's triumph was not all that surprising, even accounting for the loss of five players who were called up by Steve Hansen for the trip to Australia and New Zealand. As a cost-cutting measure the WRU have dispensed with the A team and the Under-17s, but the Under-18s have not lost for five years and the Under-21s recently completed the Six Nations Grand Slam.
"Our objective is to groom the best players for the national team,'' Wayne Hall, the Wales manager, said. "Wales have been highly successful since the advent of competition in this age group and the introduction of an Under-21 league and an academy structure has brought rewards. The results are there for all to see.''
But not at senior level, where more often than not young players are confined to the bench, miss out on full contracts because of the presence of overseas players or fall from the stepping stone to disappear into what might be called the Bonymaen Triangle.Reuse content