The Junior Springboks returned to South Africa on Sunday from the IRB Junior World Championship in Auckland, where they were just edged by defending champions England in a thrilling final at Eden Park on Friday.
The team arrived in the early morning hours at OR Tambo International in Johannesburg and when the Western Cape-based players and management landed just before midday in Cape Town, they were warmly greeted by a large group of family and friends.
Speaking at a media briefing shortly after their arrival at the Cape Town International Airport, Theron said the squad showed the future of South African rugby looks bright. He added all the talented youngsters will learn from their good experience in New Zealand.
The 21-20 loss to England apart, the Junior Boks can look back on an outstanding 2014. They achieved a first ever whitewash, 3-0 series win over the difficult Argentina Under-20 side. At the JWC, Handré Pollard and his team finished first in Pool C and stacked up wins over Scotland, New Zealand (twice) and Samoa en route to the final.
Coach Theron felt of one of the things that definitely worked out well for the Junior Boks was the fact that they shared the same hotel with the Kiwis during the three-week long tournament.
“The players could deal with them face-to-face every day, and the manner in which the guys handled it, with maturity, it is praiseworthy. We are all friends off the field anyway in rugby, and it was probably two of the most titanic battles ever fought at junior level – against New Zealand in New Zealand and with all that backing that they had. I was just so proud of the guys,” said Theron.
The Junior Bok coach further explained the two matches against NZ plus the bruising encounter against Samoa eventually took its toll on his team in the exhausting final clash.
He said: “The matches against NZ were must-win situations and then the final against a good England side. Perhaps it was the mental fatigue, and we didn’t show the same patience that we did against NZ. We lost a vital ball that we knocked-on from an attacking scrum and if we had to score there, then it was 17-3 for us and it would’ve been a different ball-game. Handré Pollard also tried his best and just missed with two drops goal. However, a final is a final, and it brings other things to the table.”
According to Theron, everyone in the Junior Boks set-up are immensely proud of the achievements of their captain, Pollard. The flyhalf was awarded the IRB Junior Player of the Year 2014 prize after he led his team superbly at the JWC. He also became the highest points scorer in the history of the JWC. Pollard was called up to the Springbok squad on Saturday and will join the senior national rugby squad on Sunday evening in Port Elizabeth for next Saturday’s Test against Scotland.
“Handré is just getting better and the whole team is unbelievably proud of him,” explains Theron. “To think back to three years ago where we found him and had to negotiate to get him out of the matric (school) desks. I went to look at him at the Coca-Cola Craven Week trials and it is just an unbelievably proud moment as a team management, the Under-20 fraternity, and then the team who played with him.
“He was a wonderful skipper with wonderful leadership qualities. Although we did not in the tournament, it was just a great experience for him with his teammates. The guys had an unbelievable spirit and I think they won’t ever forget each other,” said Theron.
According to Theron nine players of his current squad are eligible again for the next JWC in 2015 in Italy. They include the Du Preez twins, Dan and Jean-Luc, Joseph Dweba and the highly rated DHL Western Province duo of Jacques Vermeulen and JD Schickerling.
Towering lock Schickerling was one of the outstanding forwards on display during the three-week tournament in Auckland.
“You could play him (Schickerling) at six, seven or eight and he would play just as well! He is a born rugby player, he is a footballer,” beamed Theron.
“We played Nico (Janse van Rensburg) at five as he is more experienced, but JD can play there and learned from Nico, so he can make the calls next year. We are also busy with a development plan, so we are growing JD, and I don’t think there was a better four lock around either.
“Overall, we lost one of nine matches this year. Unfortunately, that was during the JWC final and it was by a single point against the defending world champions. Although we just fell short of our goal, South Africans can be very proud of the effort, conduct and commitment of these youngsters,” said the Junior Boks coach.