Junior Springboks aim to emulate 2012 winning glory at home World Championship
South Africa have only won one Under-20 Championship, at home in 2012. Now, as the tournament returns after a three-year, Covid-19 enforced hiatus, there’s great expectation on the young shoulders.
The tournament, which begins on Saturday, will be played across the Western Cape, with matches scheduled at Paarl Gimnasium, Athlone Stadium and Danie Craven Stadium – where the Junior Springboks will play their first match against Georgia on the opening day.
It is the first time the Junior Championship is being held in South Africa since 2012, when skipper Wiaan Liebenberg led South Africa to their first and only title in this format at a rainy Newlands Stadium against New Zealand. They did win the Under-21 World Champions in 2002 and 2005.
“It’s an elephant in the room, so you can’t really ignore it,” Junior Boks head coach Bafana Nhleko said about the pressure of emulating the 2012 side.
“The biggest thing for us is understanding it’s not a burden on us. We’re not carrying this pressure on our shoulders. If anything it’s an inspiration that it’s possible [to clinch the trophy].
“The reality is that we haven’t won the competition in so long so we can’t go into a competition with high expectations of ourselves, but we can draw inspiration from the group of 2012.”
You talk South African rugby, you talk lineouts, you talk scrums, trying to be dominant in the collisions.
The Junior World Championship is renowned for unearthing budding superstars for future national teams. Handrè Pollard, Steven Kitshoff and Pieter-Steph du Toit – 2019 World Cup winners – were all part of the 2012 Junior Springbok squad.
Despite only capturing the trophy once, South Africa have consistently been one of the better sides in the past 12 tournaments – only once failing to make it to the semifinal stage (in 2011) while clinching eight bronze medals.
As usual, New Zealand will be the side other teams are most wary of – the island nation has an astonishing six Under-20 Championship titles.
The enterprising and free-flowing rugby New Zealand is synonymous with might not be easy to exhibit this time around however.
The Western Cape has received heavier than expected rainfall so far in June, with flash floods across the province. However, the South Africans are well prepared to play in the possibly stormy conditions, having had their base camp in Stellenbosch for eight weeks before the tournament.
“The fortunate part is that we have practised in the wet weather,” Junior Boks assistant coach Lumumba Currie told Daily Maverick.
“We were quite prepared for what the weather could do for us as a team. We tried by all means that, whatever situation that we come across, we’re able to carry ourselves through. We can’t control the weather.
“We know that in the Cape, playing the Cape in winter, that’s what happens. It rains, it’s cold. It might be an advantage for European teams, because it’s something that they may be used to.”
The final South African squad selection took the expected conditions into account.
“We pride ourselves with set-piece. You talk South African rugby, you talk lineouts, you talk scrums, trying to be dominant in the collisions,” Currie added.
“We have our big forwards, we’ll have our forwards that are agile as well. Because if you look at recent years there’s a change in the make-up of our squads.
“You’ve got quite a number of guys that have got skill, [are] good with ball in hand, and also good on the ground.
“The way the squad was selected, it was very balanced and guys were selected on merit.
Now we’ve got enough time to prepare – maybe without star quality… but the important thing is that we have 30 guys that know what they need to do and they’re on a mission.
“Because of the conditions, you can’t go without having big forwards. These conditions require quite a number of big forwards and some of the guys missed out because of that.
“We had forwards that are highly talented, but then you look at the conditions that you’re going to be playing… will he be effective or not?
“Then you have to make that call, which is unfortunate, by the way.”
South Africa have had a positive start under the tutelage of Nhleko, who has had the reins since 2021.
The former Lions under-21 coach led the Junior Boks to a Six Nations Summer Series title in Italy in 2022. Although this time around they will be without dynamic centre Suleiman Hartzenberg – who has a handful of United Rugby Championship caps for the Stormers – because of injury.
“We’re lucky, we don’t have too many Currie Cup players, and I say lucky because it’s given us time together,” Nhleko added.
“The flipside is that you probably want a few guys with Currie Cup experience, but you know you can’t have it both ways, then you’re frustrated because you don’t have enough time to prepare.
“Now we’ve got enough time to prepare – maybe without star quality, if I can call it that – but the important thing is that we have 30 guys that know what they need to do and they’re on a mission.”
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Instead of playing friendly matches against other international teams, South Africa u20 played a number of matches against senior club sides including False Bay, Hamilton and Maties – in part to help prepare for the physicality of the upcoming showpiece.
“We haven’t played any other international side, because we just wanted to focus on ourselves, going through the process the right way,” Currie explained.
“What we did is to go up against experienced teams, you know, so that we can be put under pressure so that when we get to the competition [and] at least we are ready for that.”
The lack of international fixtures for the South African side this year means the majority of the squad will have their first taste of playing in front of a large crowd when the tournament begins on Saturday. On the other hand, they have been protected from any attention or scrutiny on their way to building a cohesive unit.
“We are so happy that we were under the radar and there’s not much spoken about us,” Currie added. “We only have to focus on ourselves.”
South Africa are in Pool C alongside Georgia, Argentina and Italy. DM