As Wales U20 fly home from Argentina, they can look back on what was undoubtedly one of the hardest fought campaigns that we have seen in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
It was a tournament we played off the back foot, with tries largely hard to come by, the win over Fiji U20 aside. Nine tries in the remaining four games, few coming from attacks that started outside the opposition 22.
Three of the four tries scored against England U20 in the final game through the age old catch-and-drive method, while in the preceding win over New Zealand U20 we spent less than 30 seconds in the whole game inside the Baby Blacks’ 22.
A lack of big ball carriers up front resulting in a lack of go-forward possession was the main hurdle when it came to a fluid attacking game, while a lineout that failed to function throughout the tournament prevented the chance to run first phase strike plays, and a general lack of creativity in the backs was another hindrance.
Instead, Wales can put their final position down to two things; a generally strong defence within which was incorporated probably the best turnover game in the competition, and the boot of Cai Evans keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
Evans would wind up third on the top points scorer list for the tournament with 46 points, kicking the second most penalties with 10. All in all he finished his time at the U20 World Championships ninth of the all-time top points scorer list with 92, and fifth on the all-time most penalties scored list with 20.
The defence was the real backbone though, effectively winning us the games against both Argentina U20 on the first day and New Zealand U20 in the first of the 5th-8th place play-off games, going up against two teams with big ball carriers and coming out on top.
There was a level of organisation and speed that Byron Hayward, travelling as the defence coach for the tournament before taking over as senior Wales defence coach from Shaun Edwards in the Autumn, instilled in the successful Scarlets team of 2016-2018.
They met the physical challenge head-on, forcing plenty of mistakes particularly from the Baby Blacks, but most impressively coupling that defensive organisation and commitment with an unrivalled turnover game.
Although we didn’t have that aforementioned ball carrying game in attack, we were able to name two opensides in the back row, and Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell partnered up brilliantly to get over the ball, ably assisted by Dewi Lake.
In the end Wales wound up with four players in the top 10 of most tackles made, Jac Price (57), Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler (62), Morgan (67) and Reffell topped the list with an impressive 75, averaging 15 tackles per game.
Unfortunately the defence didn’t quite function throughout all five games, as England U20 picked it apart in the first 40 minutes of the final game with a combination of power and speed of ball, while there was an understandable dip in energy levels in the final group game against Fiji U20 on a particularly heavy pitch in Santa Fe.
That game came at the end of three matches in eight days, while the whole tournament sees five matches in 18 days, and with fixtures at U20 becoming increasingly physical, there was a knock-on effect on injuries this year.
Aneurin Owen was ruled out within a few minutes of the first game getting underway, Lennon Greggains missed three matches due to a shoulder injury, Sam Costelow broke his jaw against New Zealand, Max Llewellyn was ruled out of the England clash, while Harri Morgan could only start two games due to illness.
Factor in Costelow, Owen and Teddy Williams sitting exams during the pool stages as well, then the 28-man squad allowed by World Rugby was extremely stretched at some point.
Admittedly there was a question mark over head coach Gareth Williams opting to fly out back rower Ioan Rhys Davies to replace centre Owen, but on the whole World Rugby need to look at either playing the tournament over a greater period, or allowing bigger squads to travel.
Back to Wales though, and while perhaps not a squad that has the skill level seen in recent years, this group of players arguably have the biggest workrate and determination to win that has been seen for a while, as they bettered the seventh placed finish of the last three tournaments to finished sixth.
Of those who have played their last games at U20 level, certain names stick out as having big futures; Dewi Lake, Tommy Reffell, Lennon Greggains, Harri Morgan, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler, Tomi Lewis, Ryan Conbeer, Ioan Davies.
Behind them there are encouraging signs for next year’s squad, with a number of players eligible in 2020 already key names on the teamsheet; Kemsley Mathias and Ben Warren at prop, Jac Price in the second row, Jac Morgan in the back row, scrum-half Dafydd Buckland, fly-half Sam Costelow, and Aneurin Owen in the centre.
There is plenty of talent at U18 and in the new U19 squad too, who we will look at over the coming weeks and months ahead of the 2020 U20 Six Nations. For now though, the future is still looking good.