Junior All Blacks graduate in tournament of hard knocks

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The Independent Online

Welcome to rugby's World Cup without tears. While next year's senior event remains embroiled in confusion, yesterday's 71-18 win for the Junior All Blacks over their French counterparts brought to a rousing conclusion the 34th World Under-19 Championships.

The next step in the 2003 World Cup saga is a council meeting of the International Rugby Board on 12 April, and Vernon Pugh QC, the IRB chairman and principal troubleshooter in the dispute between the putative hosts, Australia and New Zealand, is staying tight-lipped until then. Perhaps David Rutherford, the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union, permitted himself some well- chosen words in Pugh's ear as the pair watched a superb Kiwi display, which was led by the brilliant North Harbour fly-half, Luke McAllister.

As for the players from 32 unions across the globe who gathered in Italy, very few could contemplate involvement in the senior version just yet. Even McAllister, who contributed a try and 22 points in the final at the Stadio Rugby Di Monigo, might have to wait until 2007 or beyond. But the twin pleasures of touring and international competition have been successfully introduced to a new generation, during a fortnight of 64 matches based around Venice and Treviso.

This appeared to be the happy upside to the IRB's expansionist policy. The tournament, which began in 1969 and was largely the preserve of the French until the 1990s, now has a much wider entry with the help of IRB funding of £250,000 a year. The IRB's game -evelopment manager, Geoff Evans, sees the championship as a stepping stone to the annual equivalent for the Under-21s, which will place in South Africa in June.

''This is an opportunity for young players to test themselves outside the normal challenges of their own country,'' said Evans, once of London Welsh, Wales and the 1971 Lions. "It's a tough call for some of them, but the coaches will tell you they grow up in a fortnight.''

Evans's enthusiasm was echoed by the New Zealand team manager, Kevin Gimblett, although winning probably helps. Only a penalty shoot-out defeat after last year's drawn semi-final against Australia prevented four straight New Zealand titles. "We have regional trials for 2,000 players,'' explained Gimblett. "Then the provinces take over and whittle them down to between 100 and 150. From those, we take 26 on what amounts to a five-week tour, because it starts off with a domestic 12-day assembly with two warm-up matches. All the boys are amateurs, but we are teaching them the professional ways. They room with their direct opposition – the guy who wants their place – and we find that they spur each other on.''

Each to their own. England have only recently embarked on a Lottery-funded academy programme, based loosely on the 12 Zurich premiership clubs. Yesterday morning, on a bone-hard surface at Casale sul Sile, England faded from a 10-5 half-time lead to lose the play-off for fifth place 17-10 against Scotland. The Rugby Football Union's performance director, Chris Spice, is uncertain of the value of the emphasis on winning four tough games in two weeks, and may follow Australia, who opted out this year.

In New Zealand, everything is geared without impediment to producing future All Blacks, and the latest purveyors of the haka showed that they have found at least one way of getting things right. Nor was there any argument among the other 800-plus rugby-loving lads from England to the Ukraine, Argentina to Trinidad, during the mass kit-swapping session after the final.

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