Sport

MINDING THE GAP

Inaugural U20 Rugby Championship essential to bridging the growing north/south gap at global level

Inaugural U20 Rugby Championship essential to bridging the growing north/south gap at global level
Australia celebrate scoring against the Junior Boks during the U20 Rugby Championship at Sunshine Coast Stadium. 7 May 2024. (Photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The U20 Rugby Championship, currently taking place in Queensland, is not going well for South Africa’s Junior Springboks, but the outcome in this inaugural staging of the competition is not the primary mission.

In a country where the Springboks are feted and revered because they are world champions again, there is little patience and context with any other rugby failure in the system.

By being the best in the world at Test level, the understandable expectation is that the rest of South Africa’s rugby teams must also rule the world at the varying levels of the sport – sevens, under-20s and schoolboys.

The reality is that it’s not that straightforward and at the vital under-20 level, the gap between the northern and southern hemisphere has been growing for close to a decade.

In the last decade, England and France have won six of the eight U20 World Championships (two years were cancelled due to Covid) that were staged.  The north has been improving and dominating while the south recedes.

It’s partly economic, as rugby’s financial clout still resides mostly in France, Britain and Ireland, but it’s also systemic.

South Africa and New Zealand in particular, have excellent schools that play high-quality rugby, but without regular international competition at under-20 level, the cracks are developing.

Wake-up call

Last year, the Junior Boks finished third despite suffering a sensational defeat against Italy in a Paarl mud bath in the Pool stages. The reality was though, that eventual winners France (who claimed their third U20 title in succession) and runners-up Ireland, were far ahead of the chasing pack.

France and Ireland were too fast, too organised and skilful and too battle-hardened after the U20 Six Nations, for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand or Argentina to realistically compete.

Read more in Daily Maverick: France dominated while Junior Springboks end Under-20 Championship on a high

Evidence of the growing gulf between the northern and southern hemispheres was easy to see — from performances and big match temperament to the actual scores.

New Zealand, for so long the dominant team at U20 level, finished seventh at the World Championships last year.

France battered New Zealand by 35-14 in Pool play while Ireland thumped Australia 30-10. The Junior Boks lost 34-26 to Italy. New Zealand only beat Wales by a point in a thrilling 27-26 win and Australia and England drew 22-22.

Outside of France and Ireland, the contests were tight, but the reality is that the southern hemisphere teams are falling further and further behind. This is why the establishment of an age group Rugby Championship was vital to bridge the growing divide.

Bafana Nhleko, U20 Rugby Championship

Junior Springboks coach Bafana Nhleko. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

After last year’s loss to Italy, Junior Bok coach Bafana Nhleko, highlighted the need for more age group competition. He said what many were thinking, but few, if any, had the courage to express openly.

“If you look at all the Six Nations teams they start playing the Six Nations comp from under-16 onwards and by the time they get to under-20 — in junior terms — they’ve got 50 international caps,” Nhleko pointed out.

“It’s not something that we have, neither do we have the privilege of playing against them and testing ourselves.

“We’ve got a great product which is our schoolboy [rugby] and we must never go away from that because it’s a bedrock of our system, but where we probably can get better as to understanding what that product needs to do to support the under-20 programme.”

After the 2023 debacle, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) moved quickly after last year’s U20 World Championships staged in the Western Cape, to establish an annual Rugby Championship tournament at U20 level.

It was a recognition of the widening divide and the potential knock-on effect of that into senior rugby.

Sure, the Boks and All Blacks contested the final of Rugby World Cup 2023, but outside of that tournament, France and Ireland in particular, but also England and Wales, have been regularly winning matches against Sanzaar opponents

Trial and error

The inaugural U20 Rugby Championships, planned at fairly short notice and in a tough economic climate for Sanzaar, has been localised in Queensland to cut travel time and costs.

Unfortunately, it has coincided with horrendous weather, not unusual in Queensland at this time of year, which has impacted on the quality of the rugby.

The Junior Boks suffered a surprise 24-19 defeat to Australia in the second round of matches, following an opening day 13-13 draw against New Zealand.

Angus Staniforth, Junior Boks

Angus Staniforth of Australia (left) is tackled by Junior Boks players. (Photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Junior Boks slump to defeat against Australia in U20 Rugby Championship

Both matches were played in torrential rain and gale force gusts, reducing the contests to a lottery with handling almost impossible and luck playing a bigger part than usual.

But the Junior Boks were also architects of their own downfall against Australia with loosehead prop Mbasa Maqubela dangerously clashing heads with an opponent, which earned him a red card.

Although the competition rules allow for a replacement following a 20-minute punishment with 14 men, the damage was done in that period. A later yellow card for lock Bathobele Hlekani, who collapsed an Aussie maul heading to the Bok line made the job impossible as it also resulted in the decisive penalty try.

The clash against Australia was a catastrophic outing, ending any realistic chance South Africa had of winning the U20 Rugby Championships after New Zealand thrashed Argentina 43-20 in the other match in round two.

U20 Rugby Championship

Frank Vaenuku of New Zealand offloads against Argentina at Sunshine Coast Stadium. 7 May 2024. (Photo: Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The young Pumas thumped Australia 25-6 in round one, which means the Junior Boks are bottom of the log going into the third and final round on 12 June.

Secondary mission

While the result against Australia and the fact that New Zealand are almost guaranteed to take the inaugural title will sting, this was not the primary mission for Nhleko and the team.

Many people don’t want to hear that, but the reality is that these matches are an extended trial — a fact-finding mission if you prefer — with an eye on the World Rugby U20 Championships in June.

South Africa is hosting the tournament in the Western Cape, as it did in 2023, and the mission is to win it on home soil.

After the draw with New Zealand, Nhleko made nine changes for Australia. With three high-level matches crammed into 12 days, as well as the need to expose all players to the intensity needed with an eye on the World Championships, it had to be done.

“Three competitive games in 12 days means that load management will play an important part in our team processes and player management,” said Nhleko.

“Also, this tour is very much about us continuing to grow as a team and part of the planning was to give the whole group playing minutes and experience in a very competitive series.”

The difficult conditions the teams are enduring might also be beneficial in the long run because last year’s U20 World Championships were played in driving rain and muddy fields, particularly in Paarl.

“It was a great opportunity to gain experience in different conditions and learn going forward,” Nhleko said after the draw against New Zealand. DM

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