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Under-20 team's struggles a worry for New Zealand rugby

By STEVE McMORRAN

AP Sports Writer

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) An event of importance to the long-term future of New Zealand rugby occurred last weekend but was mostly overlooked by Kiwi fans whose focus was on ... rugby.

In a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees, most New Zealand fans were too distracted by the dramatic end to Super Rugby's regular season to notice he New Zealand under-20 team lost a playoff for fifth place to Wales at the age-group World Cup, ensuring its worst finish in the tournament's history.

New Zealand will now play Ireland this weekend for seventh place.

New Zealand newspapers gave the result only passing mention and it vanished swiftly from television and radio sports bulletins. There has been little subsequent analysis of the cause for the team's poor performance and it's possible long-term ramifications for rugby in New Zealand.

The under-20 World Cup is the major development tournament in world rugby, a showcase for the next generation of test players. By that definition eventually there will be flow-through from the failure of the New Zealand under-20 team to the All Blacks whose ranks these young player are expected to replenish.

New Zealand Super Rugby teams will also likely feel the fallout, at least to notice the absence of this generation of age-group players who gave every indication in Argentina that they don't possess the ability to play at a professional level.

The New Zealand team was not just beaten in Argentina but humiliated, losing 25-17 by South Africa in pool play, though South Africa lost three players to yellow cards. In failing to take even a bonus point from that match, New Zealand finished third in the pool behind South Africa and France.

From its beginning in 2008, when it replaced the previous under-19 and under-21 World Cups, New Zealand dominated as it has dominated world rugby, winning the title six times, including in each of the first four years.

New Zealand Rugby threw resources at the team, furnishing it with the best coaches who in turn had the pick of the best young players.

Previous coaches include Scott Robertson, who has gone on to win two Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, Dave Rennie, who won the under-20 title in its first three years and won two Super Rugby crowns with the Chiefs, and Chris Boyd who led the Hurricanes to their first Super Rugby title.

The current coach, Craig Philpott, graduated from assistant to head coach last year and has failed in each of his first two years in charge. His future is uncertain.

Philpott was full of confidence when he prepared to lead the New Zealand team to the Oceania final, then to Argentina, saying he had chosen the best players available. But he hinted that New Zealand might also find itself at a systemic disadvantage against other teams.

"The struggle that we have is that are playing against teams who are generally better conditioned athletes," Philpott said. "They've been in full-time professional programs in some cases for up to three years.

"Our guys at best are often one year, so there is often a physical strength conditioning difference. But we've just got to able to adapt our game at this level and still keep what's special about New Zealand rugby."

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Updated June 18, 2019