Junior Boks need to find their consistency to beat undefeated Ireland
Sporadic brilliance highlights the potential of the Junior Boks but they will need to be at their best for 80 minutes to overcome a powerful Ireland side in the under-20 Championship semi-final.
The Junior Springboks scraped through to the semi-final stage of the World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
The home side finished top of Pool C with nine points, tied with surprise package Georgia — who actually had a better points difference than the Junior Boks but South Africa progressed by virtue of winning the head-to-head clash between the two sides.
South Africa have been unplayable in patches in their three group stage matches, but have also been poor at the set-piece battles as well as lacking discipline — having conceded two yellow cards so far.
In their opening match against Georgia, the Junior Boks started quickly and dominantly in front of a packed crowd at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, going into halftime leading 20-7.
But a loose, ill-disciplined 30 minutes after half-time allowed the European side back into the contest to make it 23-18 before a resolute yet expansive final 10 minutes saw the match end 33-23.
In their second group game against Italy at Paarl Gymnasium High School in Paarl, the home side never got going in wet and muddy conditions. Their scrum and lineout malfunctioned while their forwards failed to generate any front foot ball.
South Africa were down 17-0 early in the first half before a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful fightback – with both starting halfbacks injured – saw the game finish 34-26 to the Italians.
The Baby Boks’ final group game against Argentina at Athlone Stadium was a must-win on Tuesday to reach the semi-final. And for large portions of the game, it looked like they would fail in their quest.
Nine penalties conceded in the first half, most of which were because of ill-discipline at the set-piece caused a 16-7 lead to Argentina — both teams scored one try but Argentina secured nine points off penalties.
South Africa came out in the second half and displayed their attacking flair and character — akin to the first half in the Georgia game — for the first time again in the tournament to defeat the Argentines 24-16.
“I think if you can take the last 40 of the [Argentina] game and take the first 40 of the Georgia game, I think you can really put up a good performance,” South Africa under-20 coach Bafana Nhleko said.
“For the boys, it’s always the same thing… they need to go out there and actually just play to their capability.
“That’s been the frustration. I mean, results happen and we obviously want to win, but the most important thing is just play to what you’re capable of.
“And they just haven’t strung it together in the way. I’m just glad the last 40 they could show a little bit of that.”
South Africa turned their set piece around completely in the second half against Argentina. For the first time in the under-20 Championship, the Junior Boks won all their scrums and lineouts in one half of rugby.
“It’s a bit difficult, I think, when we conceded the first penalty [in the first half] in the scrum, I think it was quite contentious, but mentally you go, ‘Oh, here we go again, same picture’,” Nhleko explained.
“And then all of a sudden you slip in the second one and the pattern is kind of repeating itself.
“But we’ve been working hard on our process, we’ve been working hard both in terms of maul stops and scrums and I thought in the second half we probably got better within our systems and I guess the boys started believing a little bit more.”
In the dry yet windy conditions of Athlone Stadium, which has a world-class pitch, the Junior Boks expressed their potential with ball-in-hand too.
“I thought the way we played in the second half and some of the opportunities that we created is probably our best performance in that context,” the coach said.
“We probably left a few tries out there and the way we defended again, I thought that was quite exceptional from the group as a whole.”
South Africa’s next obstacle is Ireland in the semi-finals. They are unbeaten in the under-20 Championship — although they did draw 34-34 to England on matchday 1 — having topped Pool B.
The same Ireland under-20 squad also won the Six Nations earlier this year winning four out of their five games with a four-try bonus-point.
Ireland is also dealing with the tragedy of the untimely death of Greig Oliver on the eve of their match against Fiji, which they won 47-27. He was a Munster coach and father of one of the players, scrumhalf Jack Oliver.
“It’s just making sure that you focus on yourself as much as you can. The turnaround is so short. We’ll obviously watch Ireland and we’ll have a look to see what they can offer,” Nhleko said.
“From the little I’ve seen from watching [Ireland] and the rugby tournament in general. They’re playing good rugby, they’ve got a good set piece, you know good interplays amongst the backs and forwards.
“Their 10 (Sam Prendergast) and I think their seven flanker (Ireland have used several players in that position) they’re the heartbeat of the team.
“I’ve spoken about what they’ve just suffered, which is extremely unfortunate and sad. That should probably motivate them again.”
South Africa face Ireland at 4:30pm at Athlone Stadium on Sunday. DM