‘It is my dream to play for the Springboks’ – Juarno Augustus eyes Rassie’s call despite ‘no chats’

Alex Spink
Northampton Saints' South African forward Juarno Augustus with the quote: 'It is my dream to play for the Springboks'

Juarno Augustus is still eyeing a first Springboks cap.

Juarno Augustus heads into the biggest rugby match of his life admitting, “It is my dream to play for the Springboks”.

The Northampton number eight has yet to attract Test recognition despite being crowned World Junior Player of the Year in 2017, playing alongside Manie Libbok for the Junior Springboks.

He has helped Northampton to the top of the English Premiership and this weekend in Dublin spearheads Saints’ bid for a place in the Investec Champions Cup Final.

Saturday’s semi-final at Croke Park is the hottest ticket in rugby with all 82,300 tickets sold last month within hours of going on sale.

No contact with Springboks

A head-to-head with Ireland number eight Caelan Doris presents a precious opportunity for Augustus to remind South Africa in general, and Rassie Erasmus in particular, of what he is capable of.

The fact World Cup-winning South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber is at the Leinster helm is unlikely to have been lost on the 26-year old.

“If I can be the best player I can be, I think I can get a foot in the door,” said Augustus. “But I have had no chats with the (South Africa) coaches. It’s about letting my rugby do the talking for me.”

The Alexander Bay-born forward has been described as an “animal” and an “absolute beast” by boss Phil Dowson during his time at Saints, which makes the lack of contact with Springbok management surprising.

The player himself insists he has improved out of sight since the World Junior Championship seven years ago when he top-scored with seven tries and was voted player of the tournament.

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He ended 2017 as World Rugby Junior Player of the Year, topping a shortlist that not only featured England duo Zach Mercer and Gabriel Ibitoye but New Zealand wing Will Jordan – who would go on to head the try charts at the 2023 World Cup in France.

“It was a stepping stone into my professional career but there’s a big difference between junior rugby and senior rugby,” said Augustus, absolutely the last person to blow his own trumpet.

“They (Springboks) probably thought I wasn’t ready. That I needed to go away and get more experience.”

Evolving his game

He has done that alright, playing for Western Province in the Currie Cup and the Stormers in Super Rugby before taking the plunge and moving to the United Kingdom.

“I’d never been to England before,” he added. “The weather here is variable, you get sunny days and rainy days, more rainy days than sunny days! It has helped evolve my game.

“When I came to Saints I just wanted to play and run at things. Now I understand the game a little bit better. I know when not to overwork and when to get my hands on the ball. I’m more all-rounded than before.”

Since Augustus left the junior ranks South Africa has won both senior World Cups with the great Duane Vermeulen in the eight shirt. There is no disgrace in being unable to shift him.

Vermeulen has now retired, joining Erasmus’ new-look coaching staff, and the battle is on to succeed the Nelspruit-born legend, first at Twickenham against Wales on June 22, then in the eagerly anticipated two-Test series against Ireland in July.

According to sources in South Africa, Augustus is still not in the Boks’ thinking, with Jasper Wiese and Evan Roos setting the pace for selection and Cameron Hanekom attracting admiring glances.

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A big performance in Leinster’s backyard, against the four-time champions, would surely change that, in much the same way Wiese and Andre Esterhuizen earned their spurs on the back of success with Leicester and Harlequins, respectively.

“We’re playing this weekend against what you might call the Ireland international side,” Augustus said. “The speed the tickets sold out tells us a lot about how big the game is.

“I came to England because I wanted to challenge myself against better players and develop my game. There are few bigger opportunities to do so than this weekend.”

Courtney Lawes’ key message

Augustus has been close to a major prize before, when powering the Junior Boks to within five minutes of reaching the 2017 Junior World Cup final in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

His two tries put a Boks side, dominant up front, ahead 22-17 only for Mercer to break their hearts with a late converted score.

Whether this semi-final goes his way depends on how Northampton react to losing at Twickenham to Harlequins last weekend – and whether they are able to derail the Leinster juggernaut.

Saints have prepared their players with a history lesson on the significance of Croke Park, where 14 lost their lives in a Bloody Sunday massacre in 1920 during the Irish battle for independence.

Eamonn Hyland, Northampton’s Irish strength and conditioning coach, addressed Augustus and the rest of the squad on the “cultural and historic” importance of the venue to the Irish population.

There was also a more rugby-centric speech by Courtney Lawes in which the England and Lions great urged his teammates to play the game rather than the occasion.

“Courts said in big games it is important not to get overwhelmed by the occasion,” Augustus recalled. “He told us, yes this one is important and there will be more people watching, but it’s a rugby game and we were born to do this.

“This is our next game and it’s about us being ourselves, doing our job. Because that is what has got us this far.”

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