Lions tour: Juniors to boost Bok selection stocks?

Phendulani Buthelezi (Gallo)
Phendulani Buthelezi (Gallo)

Cape Town – The encouraging quality so far of the Junior Springbok troops at the World Rugby U20 Championship could just have a useful spinoff or two for the senior Boks’ chances of toppling the British and Irish Lions on their keenly-awaited 2021 tour of the country.

While experience will still be critical in the home ranks for the three-Test challenge that only comes around every 12 years, the national team will seek more youth-themed personnel for balancing purposes as well.

A wildcard wunderkind or two in the Tests from the troops currently carrying the SA flag with aplomb at the Argentina-hosted annual U20 tournament?

Don’t write off that happening two years further up the line.

By then, some of the current U20 crop – they have just beaten arch-rivals New Zealand quite comfortably to top their pool and tee up a semi-final against France on Monday – will probably be in their second seasons (and in one or two cases more) of first-class activity for their franchises/provinces.

If they have been fast learners at Super Rugby and Currie Cup level, a handful could well be sticking up their hands for Bok selection in time for the Lions’ first visit to our shores since 2009.

Keep in mind that standout figures thus far in the Junior Boks’ campaign like dynamic captain and loose forward Phepsi Buthelezi and magnificent lock prospect JJ van der Mescht have already sampled some activity for the Sharks in the major SANZAAR franchise competition this year.

Both will have just turned 22 by the time the Lions tour, which makes it far from outlandish that they represent their country at the highest level if they are playing to the desired standards in the immediate lead-up.

Now staple pack figure Eben Etzebeth, for example, is a glowing example of a player first blooded at Test level (2012) aged only 20; the same applies to centre Jan Serfontein and flyhalf Handre Pollard (2013 baptism in each instance).

All were thus making full international debuts – in the Heyneke Meyer coaching tenure -- just one season after first representing the national cause (though Pollard had a rare three years with the Junior Boks) in the then-branded IRB Junior World Championship.

Another current Bok, loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, was still a teenager when he first represented Western Province and the Stormers in 2011, and even before joining Pollard and Serfontein in the Junior Bok team that won the 2012 Championship on home turf.

Particularly with so many first-class players of widely varying ages countrywide being lured abroad these days, it is especially gratifying when South Africa’s U20 group from any given year shows widespread levels of promise – the exodus pattern from a little further up the pecking order of experience often inadvertently helps fast-track their opportunities at senior level.

The 2019 crop are still two games (assuming they can crack the final) from replicating the Junior Bok title glory of 2012, of course, but the manner of their team victories and individual showings so far against Scotland, Georgia and New Zealand strongly suggests that several in their midst are destined for far bigger things if they remain suitably level-headed, fit and focused.

Apart from Buthelezi and Van der Mescht, other Junior Boks at the Argentinean-staged jamboree who have consistently caught the eye so far include scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, flyhalf James Mollentze, flanker Dylan Richardson and the barrelling, 130kg-plus tighthead prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye.

That several of those represent the Sharks points to a potentially bright future in the short- to medium term for that franchise (not always renowned for bringing through junior talent and often enough accused of “poaching” from elsewhere) in particular …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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