Baby Boks show thrill factor

2015-04-22 09:48
Dawie Theron (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – First things first: there is an enormous amount of polishing still to do.

But we also saw abundant signs in their first run-out of the 2015 season against the Varsity Cup Dream Team at the Danie Craven Stadium on Tuesday that the Baby Boks ought to be as competitive as ever in the newly-named World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy in some six weeks’ time.

South Africa have routinely been a “podium” side in the annual, former IRB Junior Championship since 2012, when they stirringly won it on home soil.

They were third-placed finishers a year later, and narrow losing finalists (21-20) to England at the event staged in New Zealand in 2014, so they will automatically be expected to be right up among the biggest guns again in June.

While this worthwhile experimental fixture, in which the lead changed hands several times before Dawie Theron’s charges claimed the spoils 31-24, hardly serves as an accurate yardstick, the current crop of SA under-20 players look like including some notable individual game-breakers for the Italian tournament challenge.

Team cohesion, often rather lacking from both outfits in Tuesday’s game which mixed the sublime with the rank sloppy, will almost certainly get sharper in the weeks ahead.

Bear in mind that it is not uncommon for the Baby Boks to gradually pick up steam even within the world event itself: when they lifted the cup in 2012 they looked a long way off championship material, for instance, as they surrendered their opening match to Ireland – coincidentally at the very same Stellenbosch venue.

Importantly, though, the side that repelled the Baabaas-spirited Varsity combo not only showed strong ticker to come back and win, after appearing more than a little cowed and being very hard-pressed defensively in the first half-hour or so, but demonstrated decent doses of X-factor from several players.

This was particularly prevalent behind the scrum, where fullback and 2014 survivor Warrick Gelant, the 19-year-old from Knysna on the Blue Bulls’ books, became increasingly assertive and elusive as a ball-carrier, and inside centre Daniel du Plessis was often influential in either orchestrating or putting the finishing touches to deft moves.

Former Paul Roos pupil Du Plessis, a WP Craven Week-winning standout of 2013, is the son of Michael du Plessis, the marvellously (though not everybody hailed him at the time) independent-spirited and unpredictable Springbok midfielder or flyhalf of the 1980s era.

The family rugby genes – uncles Carel and Willie are illustrious Boks too – have clearly been transferred to this particular Du Plessis, because he oozed authority and conviction at No 12, where his partnership with JT Jackson also showed signs of gelling nicely.

It is obviously going to be a tricky process for the Baby Boks of 2015 to get used to life without Handre Pollard pulling the strings at pivot – he did so, unusually, in all of the last three world championships – and the starting flyhalf on the night, Ernst Stapelberg, does not appear likely to get the same sort of range on his touch-finders or place-kicks as Pollard pretty routinely did.

He is also not as much of a physical presence in the channel -- perhaps not many can be that – but he showed enough touches to demonstrate that he could yet grow into the key role.

Stapelberg’s halfback partner Ivan van Zyl also made at least one precious contribution, his visionary long, skip pass off the base of a ruck setting in motion the build-up to the Baby Boks’ smart first try after they had gone behind.

 It simultaneously appeared to inject some necessary confidence into the whole team four minutes from the break after it had really looked “men against boys” initially.

The SA under-20s do have plenty of graft to do, under Theron’s renowned tutelage, on their set-pieces and more particularly the scrums, where their front row was sometimes popped and bent back rather violently on the retreat and at the risk of injury.

Again, however, it needs to be kept in mind that they were playing opponents predominantly of a considerably superior age group, so not too much should hastily be read into that difficulty.

Even as they spent much of the first half on the back foot, the Baby Bok loose forwards tackled and scavenged with tenacity: captain Hanro Liebenberg, already with a useful taste of Super Rugby, and open-sider CJ Velleman, who shows some signs of Schalk Burger-like zeal, largely ticked the correct boxes.

Hats off to the Varsity side, who had only assembled for the first time the day before, for often spurning opportunities to have a crack at the posts from penalties in keeping with the intended mood of the occasion; had they done so they might well have edged the clash.

Not that the result, at the end of the day, really mattered a whole heap ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    baby boks  |  dawie theron  |  cape town  |  rugby

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