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AP/Press Association Images New Zealand coach Scott Robertson, centre, celebrates with his players in Cremona's Zini stadium last summer.
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How perennial favourites New Zealand shape up ahead of the U20 Rugby World Cup
They’ll be taking on Nigel Carolan’s Ireland side in the pool stages.

RUMOURS OF NEW ZEALAND’s demise at U20 level proved to be greatly exaggerated during last season’s tournament as Scott Robertson’s side halted England’s bid for a third consecutive title with a 21-16 victory in Cremona.

The Baby Blacks had blazed a trail with four consecutive titles from 2008 to 2011 which included a thumping 62-17 victory against the young Wallabies in the 2010 final in Argentina. Tyler Bleyendaal, who scored 28 points that night, captaining a stellar outfit containing future All Blacks stars such as Julian Savea and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

An unprecedented fourth title was clinched in Italy the following year. Arguably the most talented New Zealand underage side of all time secured the title with a thrilling 33-22 victory against England. The likes of Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett, Lima Sopoaga, TJ Perenara, Francis Saili and Charles Piutau would all become All Blacks in the coming seasons.

South Africa brought an end to New Zealand’s dominance in 2012 before England claimed back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014.

The Baby Blacks made a triumphant return to form last season, however, with victory in the final against the English on Italian soil. The likes of Akira Ioane, Vincent Tavae-Aso and Tevita Li have all since graduated to Super Rugby level.

So, how good are the current crop of young Kiwis heading to Manchester to defend their title this month?

New Zealand warmed up for the tournament with two games against their Australian counterparts on the Gold Coast last month. The visitors saw off the Aussies 30-10 in the opening game before falling to a 25-24 defeat in the second instalment – it was Australia’s first ever victory over New Zealand at U20 level.

The New Zealand squad reconvened for a five-day camp at Mount Maunganui, a relaxed beach town located two hours south of Auckland, where they took on a Bay of Plenty XV. Robertson’s side securing a 35-21 win against a side containing a mixture of Super Rugby and Mitre 10 cup players.

Wellington hooker Leni Apisai, who has featured for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby this season, will lead the side the forthcoming campaign.

Injuries to All Blacks hooker Dane Coles and Samoan powerhouse Motu Matu’u handed Apisai the chance to start his side’s Super Rugby opener against the Brumbies in Canberra back in February.

Apisai is one of six players in the Baby Blacks squad with Super Rugby experience with Waikato flanker Mitchell Jacobson returning for a remarkable third year.

New Zealand will bring one of their most formidable packs in recent seasons spearheaded by Apisai, Canterbury lock Hamish Dalzell and powerful Hawkes Bay No 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u. Wellington tighthead Alex Fidow, who tips the scales at 130kg, has been described as a “wrecking ball” by head coach Robertson and is set to anchor his side’s scrum during this month’s showpiece.

Taranaki flanker Fin Hoeata, younger brother of former All Blacks lock Jarrad Hoeata is another player to keep an eye on over the coming weeks.

Highly-rated Auckland Blues scrum-half Sam Nock, who is learning his trade under Bryn Hall and Billy Guyton at the region, is set to run the show from the base while TJ Va’a, who has Super Rugby experience with the Hurricanes, and Taranaki playmaker Stephen Perofeta are set to fight it out for No 10 shirt.

Powerful Otago centre Sio Tomkinson and Jordie Barrett, young brother of All Blacks star Beauden, are set to form promising midfield combination with Orbyn Leger, highly-regarded by Counties Manakau, the same region that produced Bundee Aki, providing cover.

Waikato Chiefs winger Shaun Stevenson, Hawkes Bay flyer Jonah Lowe and Blues utility back Jordan Trainor will provide plenty of gas out wide.

The Baby Blacks begin their campaign against Georgia on Tuesday at AJ Bell Stadium in Salford before taking on Nigel Carolan’s Ireland side and Wales later in the pool stages.

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