In the first article of a series, DYLAN JACK rewinds to the 2012 World Rugby U20 Championship and looks at what happened to the title-winning Junior Springboks.
After finishing a disappointing fifth at the 2011 edition of the tournament, there was plenty more expected from the Junior Springboks’ Class of 2012, especially as they were playing the U20 Championships on home soil for the first time.
Coach Dawie Theron chose a talented group of players in his final squad – with future Springboks in Dillyn Leyds, Raymond Rhule, Jan Serfontein and Pieter-Steph du Toit (among others) while the 18-year-old Handre Pollard was a bit of a surprise selection, despite his burgeoning talent.
Unfortunately, the team experienced a rocky start to their campaign as they were dealt a 23-19 loss by a talented Ireland side, with flyhalf JJ Hanrahan slotting 13 points. A 53-3 win against Italy in the following match – where seven players scored tries – did plenty to raise the morale of the squad. That set up a massive finish in their pool as the Junior Boks needed a bonus-point win over England to ensure their progression to the cup semi-finals ahead of Ireland, who faced Italy on the same day.
In a tough encounter the two teams were deadlocked at the break, but the Junior Boks started to grind the English defence down in the second half as William Small-Smith crossed shortly after half time, before flank Shaun Adendorff dotted down. Pieter-Steph du Toit scored on the hour mark and Adendorff then sealed his brace to give the Boks the bonus point.
The Junior Boks carried this momentum through to their semi-final against Argentina, where a brace from Rhule added to tries from Serfontein and Mark Pretorius gave them a comfortable 35-3 win. Arch-rivals New Zealand beat Wales in 30-6 in their semi-final, despite suffering a 9-6 loss to the same opponents in the pool stage.
In a typically brutal final between the two sides, the New Zealanders took a 10-9 lead into the break thanks to a try from Milford Keresoma, with Handre Pollard kicking three penalties to keep the South Africans in the contest. The second half threatened to boil over at times and both teams were reduced by a man for the rest of the contest after lock Paul Willemse was spotted pulling Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s hair at a maul and the New Zealand prop responded by throwing a punch.
Scrumhalf Vian van der Watt gave the Junior Springboks the lead with a try, before Pollard continued his fine form with a 40m drop. A counter-attack then ended with Serfontein showing remarkable strength to power his way over for what turned out to be the winning try.
JUNIOR SPRINGBOKS (vs New Zealand):
15 Dillyn Leyds
Leyds would make his debut for Western Province in the Vodacom Cup in 2013, but decided to move to Australia for a short stint with the Western Force the following year. Halfway through 2014, it was announced that he would return to Cape Town and he won the Currie Cup in his first season back with Province. In 2015, he made his Stormers debut and he has since sealed his place at either fullback or wing for the team. Internationally, Leyds made his Springbok debut under Allister Coetzee in 2017, earning nine Test caps that year, but he has only featured once under Rassie Erasmus.
14 Raymond Rhule
One of the stars of the U20 campaign, Rhule continued his excellent form into the 2012 Currie Cup for the Cheetahs. That earned him a place in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok squad for the year-end tour in 2012 – though he would have to wait until 2017 to make his Test debut. After winning over 50 caps in six years in Bloemfontein, Rhule moved to the Stormers at the end of 2017. Unfortunately, Rhule never quite settled into his new side, while his Test career was affected by playing in a Springbok team that constantly changed defensive systems. He left South Africa after the 2018 Super Rugby season for Grenoble, where he is currently playing.
13 Kobus van Wyk
Van Wyk was late inclusion in the Junior Springbok squad as he joined the team halfway through the tournament as injury cover for Pat Howard. In fact, his only appearance at the U20 Championship that year came in the final against New Zealand. He continued to show his maturity as he made his debut for the Stormers in 2014, despite only playing age-group rugby for Western Province. His reputation as a deadly finisher and strong carrier grew in Cape Town. However, after a short stint as injury cover at French side Bordeaux, he decided to move to the Sharks. After three years in Durban, the emergence of Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi – as well as the signings of Makazole Mapimpi and Madosh Tambwe – put his place in the starting lineup under threat. He moved to the Hurricanes in 2020 for a fresh start and has continued to fire for the New Zealand side, scoring a hat-trick on debut.
12 Jan Serfontein
Serfontein emerged as a leader in 2012 and his fearless performances earned him Junior World Player of the Year. He carried his immense talent through in his first couple of seasons with the Vodacom Bulls, forming a promising midfield partnership with Jesse Kriel, which was replicated on the Test scene with the duo starting eight Tests together since 2016. However, a move to Montpellier in 2017 removed him from the Springbok picture. Having just turned 27, Serfontein could still force his way back into the Bok squad. By all accounts he has rediscovered his best form with Montpellier, but time will tell whether he is in Jacques Nienaber’s plans.
11 Tshotsho Mbovane
Mbovane’s tale is far more sombre than the others’ on this list. It is one which brings to light the realities of being a young, professional sportsman in South Africa and why these players need far better guidance through their careers. A schoolboy superstar at Paul Roos, Mbovane was climbing the rugby ladder and building a successful career – playing U13 Craven Week, U16 Grant Khomo, U18 Craven Week, SA Schools and then eventually joining Paul Treu’s Blitzboks set-up out of high school. His star only kept rising after the U20 Championships and he was the subject of interest from Western Province, who were soon involved in a tug-of-war for Mbovane’s signature. Unfortunately, his career took a downward turn from there and while he tried to find a place in fifteens rugby no union seemed interested in taking him on. A knee injury which required surgery did as much to harm his potential while he was facing off-field pressure to support his family. After a number of years in the rugby wilderness, he found himself back in Langa coaching part-time and earning very little. However, after detailing his struggle to journalist Sbu Mjikeliso, he was given an opportunity to find new employment and rediscover his love for rugby by the Naka Bulls Rugby Club in Pretoria.
10 Handre Pollard
A player who has undoubtedly fulfilled his potential, Pollard would go on to become the Springboks’ first-choice flyhalf and help the team claim the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. However, the road to glory for Pollard was not without its potholes. After playing in his first World Cup in 2015, Pollard picked up a long-term knee injury in 2016. During his time on the sidelines, the 2014 Junior World Player of the Year decided to get his shoulder looked at. However, shortly after undergoing an operation, Pollard received news that his shoulder was infected – so much so that doctors at a stage warned that he may have to undergo an amputation. Fortunately, it did not get that far and after a year out, Pollard returned to the field in 2017. He spent another two years with the Bulls before taking up a contract to join Montpellier after the 2019 World Cup.
9 Vian van der Watt
One of the try-scorers in the 2012 final, Van der Watt formed an effective halfback partnership with Pollard in the tournament, starting four out of five games together. After the U20 Championship, Van der Watt would continue playing youth rugby for the Lions, while studying towards a degree in finance and playing for UJ in the Varsity Cup. While the Lions lost their Super Rugby status in 2013, Van der Watt stayed in and helped the union return to the competition as he started in the promotion/relegation win over the Kings. After playing a final season for UJ in 2014, he moved to the Leopards. Stints with the EP and Boland Cavaliers followed. In 2018, he decided to retire from rugby and focus on his career in finance. He currently works as a financial advisor at Liberty Life Insurance.
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