Problems with SA Rugby’s youth structures were exposed at the Under-20 World Championship despite the plucky Junior Springboks battling it out for a bronze medal, writes JACK DYLAN.
With the dust settled after the U20 Championship, it will be interesting to see what lessons, if any, SA Rugby draws 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 shock defeat to Italy in Paarl and then bouncing back against Argentina at Athlone Stadium to secure a place in the semi-final.
It was in the semi-finals that the Junior Boks were exposed, beaten by Ireland in a 31–12 defeat after holding the under-20 Six Nations champions to a seven-point half-time lead.
Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, France swept through the competition to lift the trophy for the 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 that they have better. organized, though contrasting, youth systems today.
Where South Africa is missing a trick is how they handle their young talents after school. Most players between the ages of 18 and 20 will play each other in the provincial youth tournaments – the Under-19, Under-20 and Under-21 Cups – but where they are really short on minutes is in senior men’s professional rugby.
The Junior Springboks could also greatly benefit from a Southern Hemisphere Under-20 competition, taking place before the World Championship, allowing them exposure to the intensity of international rugby.
By contrast, France scrum-half Baptiste Jauneau, who turns 20 in November, reached the Under-20 Championship with a total of 32 appearances for Clermont, including three Champions League starts, the highest level in rugby. of clubs. Jauneau had already played a total of 1,085 senior professional rugby
Junior Bok’s scrum-half Imad Khan, also returning for the team’s second time, made only one appearance for the Stormers, a cameo off the bench in Glasgow, and played just 176 minutes in the Summer Series, compared to the total of 968 minutes of Jauneu. for France U20.
Even an 18-year-old French rookie like No. 8 Marko Gazzotti, named the 2023 Player of the Tournament, had more senior professional appearances than South Africa captain Paul de Villiers. Gazzotti also matched De Villiers for minutes at international Under-20 level, playing 281 minutes in the Under-20 Six Nations compared to De Villiers’ 229 in the Summer Series.
in a Interview with sport24Nhleko conceded that the Six Nations are worthy of early exposure.
“Each competition has a particular purpose in the structure of SA Rugby,” said Nhleko. sport24.
“We have the national Under-20 competition which helps us a lot, but having analyzed the sports science numbers, our detail and level of intensity is not at the level of Test rugby.
“The reality is we need to play more test rugby and expose them more to senior environments and pressured training settings.”
This is not to criticize the level of talent in the Junior Bok team. There will undoubtedly be many successful careers to come out of this group of players. However, this is more to point out the value of early exposure and how much value the Six Nations get from playing an international youth tournament before the world championships.
It is certainly a balancing act for union and franchise managers, who have to manage a large team of veteran players and have expectations of winning at the Currie Cup and the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
However, Western Province, the Bulls, Sharks and Lions could optimize their youth systems and give more minutes to the most talented youngsters in the country, instead of retaining and relying on mediocre players in their 20s and 30s.
It’s something that the top brains in South Africa’s elite player development system will have to work out, together with union leaders, 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-term
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