- SA Under-20 head coach Bafana Nhleko said his mandate was unequivocal: win the World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
- Two cancelled Junior World Cup editions (2020 and 2021) means Nhleko has lost an entire talent class that would have included Jarrod Taylor, Jacques Goosen, Mntungwa Mapantsela and ilk.
- The Baby Boks haven’t won the tournament since 2012, beating the Baby Blacks at Newlands in the final.
SA Under-20 head coach Bafana Nhleko said his mandate was unequivocal: win the World Rugby Under-20 Championship.
It’s something that eluded Nhleko’s predecessor Chean Roux, whom he replaced in the job after serving as Roux’s assistant since 2018.
The Junior Springboks last won the tournament in 2012, as hosts, beating the Baby Blacks at Newlands in the final with a team that included eventual senior Rugby World Cup 2019 winners Pieter-Steph du Toit, Handre Pollard and Steven Kitshoff.
In 2018 Roux had succeeded Dawie Theron, who oversaw six Junior World Cups, winning the 2012 one and making the 2014 edition final held in New Zealand, where Pollard was captain.
Under Roux, the Baby Boks never got past the semi-finals, losing to England (2018) in Georgia and France (2019) in Argentina.
Although he is facing a far tougher task, with all the Covid disruptions to schools and junior rugby, Nhleko said he learnt from his predecessor Roux, and that he would lean on SA Rugby’s successful Elite Player Development (EPD) programme to help with the players’ readiness to compete.
"Chean Roux and I have a good relationship and it’s great to be able to call on his expertise," Nhleko told Sport24.
"One of the major things from a coaching perspective is to build depth within our group to ensure our entire squad is capable of starting games without losing quality.
"Without changing our identity and foundations of international rugby, we have to adapt according to the player group and their profile.
"We have come marginally short a few times, and learning from that has been painful, but it will stand in good stead in future.
"Part of the KPI mandate is to win the World Rugby Under-20 Championship and I believe in the potential of the EPD programme and our alignment to the senior Springbok team.
"As part of the player development process, they must play in knock-out games and understand what it takes to perform on that stage."
Junior rugby has suffered tremendously since the pandemic outbreak this time last year, which led to sweeping cancellations of vital tournaments that are key to rugby’s pipeline such as Craven Week and SA Schools international matches.
It’s from this well-nourished talent crop that past coaches have plucked talents such as Curwin Bosch, Gianni Lombard, Damian Willemse, Cheslin Kolbe and Jan Serfontein, who went on to star for the Baby Boks.
The last SA Schools team South Africa put out featured promising players such as Jarrod Taylor, Jacques Goosen, Mntungwa Mapantsela, Zeilinga Strydom and Jan-Hendrik Wessels, who should be in their second year of Under-20 reckoning.
World Rugby last month also cancelled this year’s edition, which was meant to take place in Italy this June.
The whole calendar wipe-out has caused havoc with junior international careers and forced coaches such as Nhleko to think outside the box.
"We have been engaging with regards to our plans and how we see the game," said Nhlenko on how to navigate the current choppy waters.
"It’s also an opportunity for them to learn about analysis and game preparation away from the field. We understand the players will be rusty upon their return to the field so our periodisation will be a slow build up.
"We are also lucky that the EPD programme has a player base that is about 4 to 5 deep per position and this has been a good starting point in identifying players.
"We are also in constant communication with schools and university coaches to identify players that missed out last year but have the potential as late developers or who may have slipped under the radar."