The 2012 IRB Junior World Championship kicks off in South Africa on Monday. Planet Rugby went behind the scenes.
The 2012 IRB Junior World Championship kicks off in South Africa on Monday. Planet Rugby went behind the scenes to get the lowdown on who to keep an eye on.
“We've got a little bit of a surprise in our backs,” says Baby Boks coach Dawie Theron.
“Our first-choice fly-half is Tony Jantjies, the brother of Elton Jantjies, and we feel that he can follow in his brother's footsteps. But then we've got HandrÃ¨ Pollard, who's still at school level, and we're waiting in excitement to see this guy at this level because we believe that he's got what it takes. He's definitely the guy that in three or four years' time could be on everyone's lips.”
Such prophecies of greatness will be common over the next three weeks as the IRB Junior World Championship takes place just outside of Cape Town. Nothing gets tongues wagging among sports fans like exciting prospects, and rugby will get a glimpse of the future between 4 and 22 June as potential stars of tomorrow go head to head. Since 2008, 130 players who competed at the Under-20 World Cup have gone on to earn caps at full international level.
Of course many more players have not, and so each country's results are no more than a guide as to how the next senior World Cup or two might pan out. More interesting will be watching how individual players like 18-year-old Pollard, who will captain Western Province at the 2012 Coca-Cola Craven Week later in July, perform against the best players in his age group from around the world.
“If we look at him, at the moment he's 97kg and 190m tall, so that is serious size,” continues Theron.
“There are some Super Rugby fly-halves who don't get close to that. He can kick the ball, he has a good feeling for the game and his distribution is very good, but then another one of his strong points is his defence. We already played him against senior opposition and he was very physical in defence, so I think he's got it. We've just got to test him now under more pressure and see how he takes that.”
While Pollard will be making a step up, there are players in Theron's squad who will arguably be taking a step down from Super Rugby. Such a notion would have seemed unlikely when the Junior World Championships replaced the old Under-19 and Under-21 tournaments four years ago to become an annual event, but such is the rapid progression of the game. It is something that Theron, who was capped 13 times by South Africa, predicted last year when he took up his job.
“We will just see more and more young players on the international scene sooner,” he says. “The guys are put through thorough development programmes at school and have the right science behind them, so they seem to become matured very early. If you look at some of these guys, 125 or 130 kilogrammes…they don't look like babies. You sit with a guy like [Steven] Kitshoff, who's already played more than 15 Super Rugby matches and he just turned 20. That's massive, and it points to the trend. For me this is the first big platform where I can work with these guys and help to form them for bigger things later on.”
Kitshoff's absence from an injury-hit Stormers side this weekend has been a bone of contention, with his franchise understandably frustrated to lose their first-choice loosehead prop for a crucial game against the Bulls. Some may argue that Kitshoff would take more out of a high-pressure Super Rugby derby than a youth tournament that takes place every year, but Theron has laid out the Championship's importance in his conversations with the Stormers, and has been backed up by the South Africa Rugby Union.
“At the capping ceremony two days ago we could see that this is still very, very important to the guys,” Theron adds.
“It's still national colours and we will set the standard in this environment to tell the guys that they've achieved their Springbok colours within this age group. It's yours and you've earned it. That's why we've focused on getting the best players, and why I'm very happy with the way things are panning out.
“There's a good relationship building up between SARU and the franchises and a lot of communication and work being put in to get the idea across that this is very important. This is the foundation for the next Springboks, and we want to get them into this culture and get that pride in the team. And we want them to understand what it's all about to make the next step up, and that we see this as the real thing.”
A taxing European season has left England coach Rob Hunter without several first-choice players, but his squad still boasts the likes of fly-half Tom Heathcote, who comes into the tournament buoyed by a breakthrough season at Bath. Hunter does not necessarily believe that the Under-20 World Cup will be a step down for the likes of Heathcote, who he says will take a range different experiences home from South Africa.
“We've got a lot of guys with Premiership experience back in England, and also some Under-20 Six Nations experience, but it's a different style of game,” Hunter says of the Junior World Championship.
“It's very high paced and very skillful – perhaps not as attritional, depending on who you're playing, as what would be the norm. They get excited about the challenge because there isn't a team who aren't here – these are the best players in the world, in this age group, this year, and to measure themselves in this arena is fantastic.”
That point about playing against the best players in the world in their age group is one that is reinforced by New Zealand co-captain Bryn Hall, and the pair agree on another key factor: the knock-out nature of the tournament. With 12 teams arranged into three pools, only the teams who finish top of their group are guaranteed a place in the next round, with a fourth semi-final spot going to the best runner-up.
“I think all of the teams realise that the best runner-up thing is a lottery, so the only way to go about it is to win every game,” says Hunter.
“If you don't get your first game right, that's gone. It's essentially knockout rugby from day one despite the fact that it's a pool.”
Such pressure to perform on the day should prepare players for the sort of environment they might find in the latter rounds of the 2015 World Cup, and the New Zealanders have received some wisdom from a man who's experienced the best and worst of those moments.
“Richie McCaw actually came to one of our camps and talked about that – about the pressures of what went wrong in 2007 which they tried to get right for 2011,” says Hall, whose country have won all four Junior World Cups to date.
“We'll take that advice from such a huge rugby personality and try to apply it one game at a time here.”
By Tristan Holme, in Cape Town