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Junior Springboks receive much-needed under-20 Rugby Championship boost

Junior Springboks receive much-needed under-20 Rugby Championship boost
South Africa players celebrate winning during the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023, third place play-off match against England at Athlone Stadium on 14 July. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/World Rugby)

Sanzaar have organised an under-20 edition of the Rugby Championship, from next year, to help compete against the dominant northern hemisphere.

An under-20 version of The Rugby Championship will take place from next year onwards.

The Rugby Championship, which will be hosted in the Gold Coast in Australia next year in April (exact dates to be confirmed), will see the junior stars of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa do battle on an annual basis.

The competition will be played annually in one country and will comprise a round-robin where all four teams will play each other once across a three-week period. The top team after the three-round, six-match tournament will be declared the winner.

“This is exciting news and we are looking forward to three tough games against talented opposition,” Junior Springboks head coach Bafana Nhleko said.

“It’s a good opportunity for players to affirm their places in the squad, and to test our systems as we build cohesion and momentum for the World Rugby U20 Championship. 

“This initiative is an important development for the Sanzaar teams’ pathway programmes, not only as match preparation for the world championship, but it’s also a life experience for the players to travel to different countries and experience different environments and cultures.”

Bafana Nhleko, Junior Springboks

Bafana Nhleko, Junior Boks head coach has welcomed a new southern hemisphere U20 tournament, which will give young players much-needed exposure. (Photo: Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images)

Much needed

South Africa finished third in the recently concluded under-20 Championship on home soil, with France taking home first place after a stunning 50-14 win over Ireland.

The Junior Springboks were the only southern hemisphere side in the top four — they beat England 22-15 in the third-place playoff.

Sanzaar’s (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) decision to create the under-20 Rugby Championship is in a bid to close the gap between the flying northern hemisphere sides and the stuttering southern hemisphere sides at recent editions of the under-20 Championship.

“We’ve been trying for a long time to organise more competitive matches for the Junior Springboks as lack of quality game time is something we’ve identified as lacking from the U20 programme,” said SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.

“It was clear that the Six Nations teams participating in this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship came into the tournament better prepared for the rigours of international rugby.

“Nothing prepares a player better for top-level competition than regular exposure to match situations, and there isn’t a better way to do this, than to play. We are very excited about this new competition and would like to commend Sanzaar for putting it together.”

The northern hemisphere have been playing in the under-20 Six Nations since 2008 — they had an under-21 version for four years before then.

Corné Beets, Junior Springboks

Corné Beets of South Africa urges his players on during the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023, third place play-off match against England at Athlone Stadium on 14 July. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images / World Rugby)

Not only is the under-20 Six Nations an important tournament to establish junior northern hemisphere dominance, but it also serves as ideal preparation for the under-20 Championship, which takes place a few months later.

South Africa scraped through their group in the under-20 Championship with a hard-fought 33-23 win over Georgia before losing 34-26 to Italy and then edging out Argentina 24-16.

The Junior Springboks finally found their attacking rhythm in their semi-final against Ireland — but failed to be clinical — as they went down 31-12.

The Junior Springboks had their best performance, in attack and defence, of the tournament in their third-place win against England.

Their gradual improvement throughout the tournament was evident as they understood their structures more.

“One of the things that we’ve constantly been talking about and it’s quite clear to see, we’re not making excuses, is certain teams are just better at playing under pressure situations because they’re exposed to those pressure situations,” Nhleko said after the Ireland semi-final loss.

“You take some of the games we’ve played when we’ve really been on top and we’ve done well, but there’s a certain time in any game where the pressure is on and it’s how you handle that.”

With the opportunity of playing against competitive international opposition in the under-20 Rugby Championship from 2024 onwards, the Junior Boks will head into the following editions of the under-20 Championship having dealt with a similar type of pressure.

Neil le Roux, Junior Springboks

The Junior Boks struggled in the recent World Rugby U20 Championships hosted in Cape Town. They ended third but lost to Italy and Ireland, who both play in the Six Nations U20. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images/World Rugby)

Catching up

South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina have gone into every edition of the under-20 Championship cold, with very little preparation against international teams.

For the first five editions of the under-20 Championship, since 2008, New Zealand and South Africa got away with their lack of extensive preparation as they clinched all the titles (New Zealand four and South Africa one).

But the improvement by northern hemisphere teams have been noticeable in the last few years.

France has been absolutely dominant. Les Bleus have won the last three editions of the under-20 Championship, despite the Covid-19 pandemic interruption between the last two (2018, 2019 and 2023).

Meanwhile, New Zealand, who won the first four editions of the tournament on the bounce, finished seventh in both of the last two editions — a remarkably poor showing for one of the leading rugby nations in the world.

Argentina ended ninth this year, their worst showing since finishing at second-last in 2017.

Having beaten Wales 57-33 in their final match, Australia finished in fifth this year, a step back from their second-placed finish in 2019.

After years of playing catch-up, the introduction of the under-20 Rugby Championship will provide all four of the Sanzaar nations with the building blocks to succeed in the under-20 Championship in the years to follow. DM

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    “An under-20 version of The Rugby Championship will take place from next year onwards. The Rugby Championship will be hosted in the Gold Coast in Australia next year in April”

    Great idea. My only issue with the statement above (which I slightly modified) is that it’s NOT a version of the Rugby Championship. The latter has been, is and always will be a stupid idea because it’s NOT hosted in one place. The ridiculous travelling for all four teams between very wide time zones – much like the so-called ‘Super Rugby’ of the past – is a waste of time and money. Maybe if the powers-that-aren’t could do some lateral thinking like they have for the U-20 they could come up with some kind of similar idea for the senior teams? Perhaps splitting it between the four countries over a revolving four year period and ensuring that the last year takes place in roughly the same time zone as the RWC. Thus this year’s one would be in SA which aligns with France and so on (haven’t really thought this out for Argentina but you know what I mean). Apart from reducing the jetlag effects, it would give each team an extended period of a few weeks together, playing top level rugby, as well as providing a realistic indication of where real improvements needed to be made. Just asking. Fair enough only one country would benefit per year, but would that be such a huge issue?

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