Juarno Augustus appears destined to play for the Springboks, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
Time is up on the clock and France, leading 23-16, look set to pull off the first upset of the World Rugby U20 Championship, against the Junior Springboks. But the French concede a penalty and the young South Africans are afforded an opportunity to orchestrate one last attack in the hope of getting a converted try, and a draw.
The Junior Boks kick for the corner, win the lineout and surge forward through a maul, but France do just enough to repel them. South Africa recycle possession with a series of pick-and-gos at the tryline, and after four phases a player in green and gold steamrollers through the heavy traffic to score.
It’s unclear who he is because the Junior Boks are caught up in a big all-in man-hug. Eventually, as the players disperse from the embrace, Juarno Augustus appears on screen with the ball as the try is credited to him by the commentator.
That moment perfectly summed up Augustus’ tournament – brute force, guts and determination – and served as a sign of things to come from the boy affectionately known as ‘Trokkie’, in reference to his big frame. While the Junior Boks could only finish third at the tournament, it did not overshadow the 19-year-old’s accomplishments.
The No 8 played every minute for his team, making 108 running metres from 47 carries and two clean breaks. He beat 10 defenders and made 51 tackles with an 88% completion rate, while managing to score a try in every match (two against France and one each against Argentina and Georgia in the pool stage; two against England in the semi-final, and another against France in the third-place playoff).
Augustus’ efforts didn’t go unnoticed. He saw off stiff competition from England’s Zach Mercer and Gabriel Ibitoye, and New Zealand’s Tiaan Falcon and Will Jordan, to become the third South African – behind Handré Pollard and Jan Serfontein – to win the World Rugby U20 Player of the Year award and the first to not have featured in the final.
‘I couldn’t believe it when they read out my name at the awards ceremony,’ the softly-spoken Augustus tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I didn’t expect it at all. It was a special moment.’
For Augustus, it has been a momentous few weeks since his crowning as the best U20 player in the world. He made his senior debut for Western Province in a 20-minute spell off the bench in the Provincial Rugby Challenge and his Super Rugby debut for the Stormers in the No 7 jersey against the Sunwolves at Newlands six days later.
‘Juarno came into our system very late,’ says WP coach John Dobson. ‘He played for us at last year’s U18 Academy Week and then joined the WP Rugby Institute. He played himself into the Stormers’ wider training group with impressive displays in the U19 competition and a great attitude in training.
‘At 19, no player is ever going to be the finished article, but it’s easy to use the Duane Vermeulen analogy with Juarno,’ adds Dobson. ‘His best position is No 8, where he executes the big ball-carrying role excellently, and he can cover flank if needs be.’
The U20 Championship allowed Augustus to showcase his talents and stake a claim for a spot in the Stormers’ back row. Yet with talented No 8 Jaco Coetzee also coming through the system, some have suggested moving Augustus to hooker. Dobson disagrees.
‘He just won the U20 Player of the Year award as a loose forward, so he can’t be too far off, right? Juarno and Jaco are similar players, but for Juarno to move to hooker – where he has never played before – is far too radical. When has healthy competition ever hurt any player? Both of them must still develop as lineout options, but I have no doubt that No 8 is Juarno’s best position and anyone suggesting otherwise has clearly not seen him play enough.’
In November 2014, in his Grade 11 year at Hoërskool Tygerberg, Augustus tore his knee ligaments and was ruled out for seven months. This not only reduced his chances of Craven Week selection in 2015, but threatened to derail his fledgling career. Looking back, Augustus regards that setback as a positive as it gave him a greater appreciation for success.
‘I was so disappointed and scared back then, but the injury and the fact I couldn't play Craven Week made me work harder,’ he says. ‘My dad works overseas, so my foundations as a player were laid at various institutions. Gordon High, Tygerberg and Whistling Wheels RFC are all places where I learned to overcome adversity and strive to be better. The U20 Player of the Year award is my greatest achievement, and every coach I’ve worked with contributed to that success.’
Augustus’ coach at Hoërskool Tygerberg, Gavin Beresford, explains how he ended up at the school and the massive role his mother has played in his life.
‘Juarno came to Tygerberg in 2014 after an acquaintance told me about this wunderkind at Gordon High. He asked me to consider taking him in at Tygerberg and we did.
‘I remember how invested Juarno’s mother was in his academic progress and discipline. Her role as a single parent can’t be underestimated. Juarno, like so many talented kids, could easily have chosen another path. Instead, her involvement and unfailing interest helped to shape a future Springbok.’
Beresford has no doubt that Augustus is heading for the top of the game.
‘Juarno’s strength and defence are his best attributes. He can play brilliant, offensive rugby with smart offloads and kicks. The one aspect of his game where he has to improve, and I’m sure he will, is his conditioning and fitness. But if he continues this form, he will surely follow in the footsteps of Tygerberg old boys Eben Etzebeth and Justin Geduld in representing South Africa on the world stage.’
Augustus admits his development is far from complete, but is doing everything he can to get better.
‘I want to play for the Boks one day and I know I have to improve constantly over the next few years to reach that dream,’ he says.
Based on his recent performances, it’s a dream that appears certain to come true.
– This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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