The Junior Springboks are showing the benefits of long-term investment, which needs to continue when the players return to their respective unions, writes DYLAN JACK.
One of the major concerns about this U20 squad was that for the first time in a while, there wasn’t really a star player that stood out from the rest. There was no Damian Willemse, no Handré Pollard and no Wandisile Simelane. With the lack of a ‘big name player’, how then could this team challenge for the U20 Championship?
These concerns were only aggravated during their pre-season when the squad lost to Argentina at home, and were then given a 35-8 hiding by an understrength England U20 side in Coventry.
However, the squad have answered their critics in fine fashion, going unbeaten in the group stages and making it through to the playoffs by outplaying New Zealand in the final pool stage match on Wednesday.
Before the Championship started, coach Chean Roux spoke about the benefits of having more time to work with each player in the squad this year, refining and helping them reach their potential.
If the Junior Boks go on to beat France in the semi-final next Monday, and then win the trophy against either Argentina or Australia, it would be an incredible achievement, making them the first SA side to claim the trophy since 2012.
Attention does need to be paid to the fact that only three players from the side that beat New Zealand in the final in 2012 have gone on to establish themselves as senior Springboks: Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff.
It is widely debated whether Jan Serfontein, named player of the tournament that year, hit the heights that he could have with the Vodacom Bulls before joining the South African exodus at Montpellier.
The one key difference between the New Zealand and South Africa U20 squads is that in three years’ time, the New Zealand youngsters will have continued to be upskilled and may find themselves operating as established professionals a few years later. South African youngsters, meanwhile, have tended to get lost among plenty of their peers stockpiled at the bigger unions.
History cannot be allowed to repeat itself with this year’s squad. Proper investment through effective coaching and man management needs to be put in place for these players when they head their separate ways to their respective unions.
The changes in the SA Rugby contracting system will hopefully streamline the process and see the best and brightest continue to improve, and not stagnate after the highs of a U20 Championship.
One hopes that the unions have seen the light.
Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images