The issues with SA Rugby’s youth structures were exposed at the World U20 Championship despite the valiant Junior Springboks fighting for a bronze medal, writes DYLAN JACK.
With the dust settled after the U20 Championship, it will be interesting to see what lessons – if any – SA Rugby takes from the tournament after the Junior Boks finished in third place for the fourth time in a row.
Bafana Nhleko’s side started with an indifferent performance to beat Georgia in Stellenbosch, before suffering a stunning loss to Italy in Paarl and then bouncing back against Argentina at Athlone Stadium to secure a semi-final place.
It was in the semi-finals that the Junior Boks were exposed, taken apart by Ireland in a 31-12 loss after holding the U20 Six Nations champions to a seven-point lead at half-time.
Meanwhile, France unsurprisingly bulldozed through the competition to lift the trophy for a third time in a row, having claimed their first title when they hosted the championship in 2018. The final, against Ireland, was definitely between the two nations who have the best-organised, albeit contrasting, youth systems at present.
Where South Africa is missing a trick is how they manage their talented youngsters after school. Majority of players between 18 and 20 years old will play against each other in the junior provincial tournaments – the U19, U20 and U21 Cups – but where they really lack is in minutes in senior professional men’s rugby.
The Junior Springboks could also really benefit from an U20 southern hemisphere competition, held before the World Championship, allowing them to be exposed to the intensity of international rugby.
By way of contrast, France scrumhalf Baptiste Jauneau, who turns 20 in November, came into the U20 Championship with a total of 32 appearances for Clermont, including three starts in the Champions Cup, the highest level of club rugby. Jauneau had already played a total of 1,085 minutes of senior professional rugby
Junior Bok scrumhalf Imad Khan, also returning for a second stint with the team, only had one appearance for the Stormers – a cameo off the bench in Glasgow – and had only played 176 minutes in the Summer Series, compared to Jauneu’s total of 968 minutes for France U20.
Even an 18-year-old French rookie like No 8 Marko Gazzotti – named 2023’s Player of the Tournament – had more senior professional appearances than South Africa’s captain Paul de Villiers. Gazzotti also matched De Villiers for minutes at an U20 international level, playing 281 minutes in the U20 Six Nations compared to the South African’s 229 in the Summer Series.
In an interview with Sport24, Nhleko admitted that the Six Nations are benefitting from early exposure.
“Each competition serves a particular purpose in the SA Rugby structure,” Nhleko told Sport24. “We have the domestic U20 competition that helps us a lot, but having run the sports science numbers, our detail and level of intensity isn’t at Test rugby level.
“The reality is that we need to play more Test rugby and expose them more to senior environments and pressured training set-ups.”
This is not to pick on the level of talent in the Junior Bok squad. Undoubtedly, there will be plenty of successful careers that emerge from this group of players. However, this is more to point out the value of early exposure and how much value the Six Nations are getting out of playing a junior international tournament before the world championships.
It is admittedly, a balancing act for union and franchise coaches, who have to manage a wide squad of senior players and have expectations to win in the Currie Cup and Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
However, Western Province, the Bulls, Sharks and Lions could streamline their youth systems and give more minutes to the most talented youngsters in the country, instead of retaining and relying on mediocre players in the mid-20 the 30-year-old bracket.
It’s something that the top brains of South Africa’s Elite Player Development system are going to have to solve, together with the union heads, if the Junior Springboks are to become a more consistently successful team, which will only benefit South African rugby as a whole in the long run.
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