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
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
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.
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
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 ...
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