Why 2017's Junior Springboks are crucial to the domestic game's survival

Curwin Bosch (Gallo Images)
Curwin Bosch (Gallo Images)
  • The 2017 team that earned bronze at the Under-20 World Champs are arguably the men that needs to keep the domestic game alive
  • For many years, Junior Springboks could still rely on apprenticeships at senior level, but the player drain is squeezing them ripe earlier
  • Disconcertingly, the recent 'opt-out' clause showed SA rugby could easily lose experienced players ... at age 22

It's a feather in South African rugby's cap that the Junior Springboks remain remarkably consistent and competitive in World Rugby's annual Under-20 World Championships.

There's an argument to be made that the team over the past few seasons haven't reached their fullest potential at the tournament, but one can't complain too much when it's taken into consideration that since 2010 South Africa have claimed bronze six times, came second in 2014 and won in 2012.

Their only so-called "blowout" was fifth place at 2011's edition.

The point isn't how well the Junior Springboks cope at their "world cup", rather how it remains a remarkably reliable gauge of the local game's continued depth and competitiveness at franchise and national level.

However, as SA Rugby still navigates the Covid-19 storm that is raging as well as the more entrenched problem of an uncertain economic landscape, it's rapidly becoming clearer that the Junior Springboks' class of 2017, led by the Stormers' Ernst van Rhyn, is now arguably the most important vintage ever of the professional era.

It's important to point out that South Africa's national junior teams over the years are a bit like George Orwell's Animal Farm - they're not all equal.

In 1999, Eric Sauls masterminded the Boks' inaugural world Under-21 title with a thrilling win over the Baby All Blacks.

That team was led by a certain John Smit and also produced accomplished national and provincial players such as De Wet Barry, Wayne Julies, Lawrence Sephaka, Johan Roets, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Hendro Scholtz and Dan Vickerman.

2002's winning team under Jake White was hugely important because it provided much of the backbone of his national squad between 2004 and 2007, culminating in the World Cup triumph in France.

Jean de Villiers (who went on to become national captain under Heyneke Meyer), Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Odwa Ndungane, Juan Smith, Ricky Januarie, Pedrie Wannenburg and Gurthro Steenkamp would all become major presences for the next decade.

Fortuitously for White and his successor, Peter de Villiers, the 2005 Under-21 team regained the world title, providing the platform for classy backups and eventual starters to emerge in Bismarck du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn, Adriaan Strauss and Heinke van der Merwe.

Dawie Theron's 2012 charges memorably ended the trophy drought at home in 2012, bringing various current stalwarts to the fore such as Pieter-Steph du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Dillyn Leyds, Jan Serfontein, William Small-Smith and a certain raw 18-year-old named Handre Pollard.

Up until that year, one could still argue that even though that squad has five players with prior Super Rugby experience already, there was still a proverbial natural order present.

Du Toit and Kitshoff were, for example, fast-tracked into the Sharks and Stormers squads respectively, but were very much still considered bright upstarts.

Things started to change fundamentally when Pollard - making a rare third appearance in the Under-20 World Champs - guided the Boks to a silver medal in 2014.

As the local player exodus steadily gathered momentum, many of South Africa's foremost juniors were required to cut short "apprenticeships" and step up as key, even senior players.

Pollard made his Test debut the same year, Jesse Kriel became the notoriously conservative Bulls' (at least in terms of promotion to the senior ranks) starting fullback and an international outside centre the next year and Malcolm Marx leapfrogged more established teammates to start the Lions' first two Super Rugby matches before Johan Ackermann wisely held him back for the rest of the year.

And so we've reached 2020, where various stars of the 2017 team are now not only key players at their franchises, but also some of the most experienced ... despite still only being between 22 and 23.

Juarno Augustus - awarded that year's accolade at the world's best Under-20 player - and Van Rhyn have both broken into the Stormers squad, partly because of injuries to Siya Kolisi and Du Toit.

What it illustrates though, particularly after the drama of Du Toit's recent contract negotiations with Western Province, is that if those two Springbok stars are taken out of the equation, Van Rhyn and Augustus are suddenly thrust into the role of senior players.

Salmaan Moerat, understood to have been on national coach Jacques Nienaber's radar, was so influential in Super Rugby this year that any potential injury would've left the Cape franchise with a huge void at lock.

Damian Willemse was the Stormers' first-choice flyhalf in Super Rugby even before he commenced a second stint with the Junior Boks in 2018 and those expectations have clearly impacted his form this year. 

Kwenzo Blose is essentially the only man standing between Steven Kitshoff and a full-blown loosehead crisis at the Stormers, especially if Ali Vermaak isn't available. 

At the Sharks, Curwin Bosch and Ruben van Heerden are not only the first-choice candidates in the flyhalf and lock positions, but also the most experienced.

Scarily, both were courted by English clubs and encouraged to use the controversial "opt-out" clause, meaning two senior players would've been lost to local rugby ... at age 22.

Gianni Lombard, with six Super Rugby caps, is the most experienced flyhalf at the Lions bar Elton Jantjies and Wandisile Simelane is considered so important at Ellis Park that they matched a substantial Stormers offer. 

Embrose Papier, at 23, will be considered Jake White's go-to scrumhalf at the Bulls, while the raw Gerhard Steenekamp is the inexperienced (and currently only) deputy to Lizo Gqoboka at loosehead.

No-one is saying that any of these men will have seasoned international careers.

But in terms of simply keeping the fabric of the domestic game intact, these rookies will become indispensable as they are the men that will, perhaps too expediently, become the gnarled veterans at such a young age. 

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