Cape Town – If South Africa become only the second side
after New Zealand to successfully defend an IRB Junior World Championship
title, they may do so this year despite, rather than because of, their tight
The Baby Boks produced a performance of sheer grit, instead
of any marked dominance, to see off fired-up hosts France 26-19 in their final
group fixture on Thursday and advance to a semi-final clash with Wales in
Vannes on Tuesday.
For the second match in succession, after they had also encountered
set-piece problems en route to victory over England (that team tackle New
Zealand in the other semi), the South Africans were rather alarmingly bossed at
scrum-time and seldom banked really clean lineout ball either.
It seems fairly clear that Dawie Theron’s charges don’t
boast nearly the kind of “grunt” in the engine room they sported last year when
winning the title for the first time, and on home soil.
After some early issues up front in the Western Cape-staged
event in 2012, the Baby Boks eventually settled on a forceful, first-choice
eight which powered them to success, including in the well-attended Newlands
final against the New Zealanders.
On that occasion, with props Steven Kitshoff (admittedly
already Super Rugby-smart) and Maks van Dyk to the fore, they famously ran the
Baby Blacks backwards in scrums a couple of times to strike key psychological
blows en route to the 22-16 triumph.
In their ranks also were second-row giants Paul Willemse and
Ruan Botha, with utility factor Pieter-Steph du Toit operating as a powerhouse
blindside flank; had it not been for injury, the Sharks youngster would almost
certainly have earned a Bok lock place during the current June Test window.
There is no lack of collective heart in the class of 2013,
but the fact remains that nobody in the present Baby Bok front five looks
remotely like challenging so quickly for a berth in the senior national plans.
The French eight marched imperiously forward every time they
had their own put-in on Thursday, and desperately few Baby Bok scrums were
safely won on the day.
Instead South Africa won primarily because their defence
somehow repelled wave after wave of French surges – buoyed by a raucous and
partisan crowd – and their classy backline was able to make enough of limited
possession to counter the three tries by the home side with a trio of their own
in an enthralling contest.
The Baby Boks also appear to lack nothing in the
conditioning and stamina department, because to their eternal credit they
seized territorial ascendancy when it really mattered in the last 10 minutes or
so to finally douse the fire of Les Bleus, and also matched bone-crunching
French hits with various whoppers of their own.
The South African back three is also a critical factor among
the team’s virtues: once again Cheslin Kolbe at fullback was a simply
irresistible presence and every time he had the ball in his hand you felt
anything was possible, even in the tightest of spaces.
A little closer to the primary heat of battle, though, the
team’s brains trust produced a tactical masterstroke in restoring Handre
Pollard, a “veteran” architect of last year’s success, to the flyhalf slot from
inside centre against France.
The Blue Bulls prospect put up an inspired all-round
performance, including kicking off the tee better than he had earlier in the
tournament, but his defensive stoutness, in particular, was invaluable in
protecting his hard-pressed channel at times.
There are shades of Henry Honiball or Peter Grant-like
resolve to the way the No 10 willingly puts his body on the line.
Just how much of a threat the Welsh will be on Tuesday
remains to be seen: they have come through a relatively “easy” pool with wins
over Samoa, Scotland and Argentina.
Their best ever finish at the Junior World Championships, since
its installation in current format in 2008, is third, achieved last year when
they beat the Argentineans 25-17 in the playoff match for that slot.
If the Baby Boks have a few fairly obvious areas of
vulnerability in 2013, their squad hardly falls short in the “ticker” and
composure departments, which means they certainly cannot be discounted for
clinging to the crown ...
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