The two most successful teams in World Rugby U20 Championship history will come face-to-face in the 2017 title decider at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium in Georgia, but will New Zealand win their sixth title or can England defend their crown and win a fourth title in five years?
Willie, how would you assess the journeys of England and New Zealand to this final?
Well, it is an interesting one isn’t it because England have never beaten New Zealand in a final at this level and I think it is pretty heavily stacked towards the New Zealanders and the way they are playing is a lovely brand. I think the big loss, though, is Player of the Tournament nominee Tiaan Falcon because he has been the glue. The impact that he makes, the decisions that he takes, his kicking game is reliable and he is a major loss, but Stephen Perofeta has come in having started for the Blues against the British and Irish Lions earlier this month.
He was down to travel with the squad but Blues coach Tana Umaga wanted to keep him for that match and now he has played that to come in at first drop is going to be difficult but he is a quality type of player that actually can step up so I don’t think he is going to lack in temperament. The only thing that is going to be a concern for me would be the combinations but hopefully New Zealand have worked that out. The travel factor is one thing but this is a very competent New Zealand.
I have watched a lot of New Zealand teams at this level and there have always been a couple of players that really stand out for me, but this team here has a group of players that play for each other. There is no real super-superstar that we have seen in the past like Tevita Li or Julian Savea or Beauden Barrett. They are really just a close, tightknit team, they do their core jobs really well, they trust each other and they work hard for each other and some of the tries they have scored have just been out of the top drawer.
England are also a side that deserves to be in the final. I watched their game against Australia where they were under the pump in the 79th minute through to the 83rd minute and after 25 phases they never lost their discipline, they never gave away a penalty and they won that match. In the semi-final against South Africa they just showed a lot of composure and in that last five minutes when they were behind by five, for Zach Mercer to score was unbelievable. They worked themselves back in, you could see them talking and there is no doubt in my mind that that is why they are going for their fourth title and looking to go back to back.
It's a dream final in my view.
These two nations have dominated the U20 Championship with eight of the nine titles shared between them, why do you think that is?
I think it is the resources they are putting in. If you look in the past when New Zealand won the first four tournaments and went on a roll they got a little bit arrogant in my view and they took things for granted. They thought they could just turn up and fait accompli we will just run out and win the tournament and that just didn’t happen. The New Zealand Rugby Union organised a Jock Hobbs Memorial U19 tournament that is run annually and represented by the 16 provinces in New Zealand and everybody gets a chance to have a crack there. I think New Zealand have got better as a result and we know the resources that England have and how many players they have got and that is the reason because they are picking the top-class players. These young kids that are coming out of schools and academies are wonderful athletes, they are amazing. There is everything you want in a player, hence the reason why so many of them go on to represent England and to play for the British and Irish Lions because they are top athletes.
In this tournament we've seen New Zealand attack from anywhere and England’s last couple of wins have been based on a defensive effort, what type of game do you think we can expect?
New Zealand are not going to change. You don’t play for four games to get to the final to change and try to do something different, it's just not in the psyche. New Zealand will look to play that expansive game, they will look to run the tramlines and have their big ball-runners running out wide and then try to find the mis-match, trying to find a prop that is struggling to get back in the line or a weak shoulder of a loose forward. That is what New Zealand do and it is all about pace. I think we saw it with the All Blacks in their win against Samoa with just the pace. They like to play with ball in hand and if the conditions are right, if the sun is out, the track is firm and if there is no wind then New Zealand will look to execute that.
Can they break down this English team? It is going to take them a long time. I don’t think they are going to score in the first 15 minutes apart from penalties because I just think that this England team, they trust their system, they are such a defensive side and any team that can hold out Australia after 25 phases and not concede a penalty is very, very special.
How would you sum up the tournament as a whole?
Fantastic, absolutely amazing. I've been doing this for a while and every year I keep going back and pinching myself because I think right back to the start when it was in Wales and then in Japan, we’ve been to Argentina and Italy and it was in New Zealand as well, but Georgia has really embraced this tournament and to be in Kutaisi and see four foreign teams get good crowds over all three days has really shown me that this is a country that loves rugby.
As far as hosts go Georgia are one of the best and I think in this tournament there could have been any of six teams that could have got to the semis or the final and that just goes to show the great work that is going on behind the scenes with developing countries starting to invest in their youth because that is where the game is.
This is the best Italian team I have seen and they have been fantastic. Georgia have got to learn about their backs but we saw how good their forwards are. Scotland also impress, while Ireland will be disappointed but they had a huge amount of injuries, even though they are not making excuses.
I just like the way that every team knows what the benchmark is and the platform that New Zealand, England and South Africa are champions have set down and that there are no easy games now. You have got to turn up and play your best because if you don’t then you are struggling and may be in the relegation play-off. It’s down to the final day as well because if you are playing for fifth you want to finish as high as you can so that next year you are not playing one of the top teams in the first game.
It is crucial and that is the beauty about this tournament, it is done and dusted in three weeks but every single game counts.