When titans go head-to-head
When titans go head-to-headSHARE
There simply is no greater contest in Rugby Union than when South African and New Zealand go head-to-head.
Yes, there are some great rivalries – such as the trans-Tasman battles between the All Blacks and Wallabies, or the almost hate-filled encounters between England and France.
However, when the Springboks and All Blacks square up to each other the occasions appear to take on a galactic magnitude.
At senior level they play each other often, at least twice a year. The All Blacks have won the last four of those.
However, at junior level it is a role reversal, with South Africa Under-20 having won their last four encounters with their Kiwi counterparts at the IRB Junior World Championship – including beating them twice in brutal battles in Albany, New Zealand, this month.
And while Dawie Theron's Junior Springboks stumbled at the final hurdle – a one-point loss to England in the tournament's grand finale – the memories of those back-to-back victories on New Zealand soil will linger in the memory banks for years to come, especially when these Baby Boks become seniors and travel back to Aotearoa for Tests.
Theron's team has had one of their most successful runs ever, losing only one game, by one point in the Final.
Add to that the fact that they had the biggest points difference and scored the most tries, the groundwork has been laid to turn junior triumphs into senior success.
"One of the positives is the fact that the South African Rugby Union opted to keep people in systems," the Baby Bok mentor, Theron said.
"This was my fourth year [as SA U20 coach], and this by far the toughest competition," he said of the just completed IRB JWC.
He felt it was made tougher by the fact that South Africa shared a hotel with their New Zealand rivals.
"In the end we all became good friends and we shared some ideas," Theron said, adding that if he has to do it over, he would again stay in the same hotel as the Kiwis.
"The players were with them [the New Zealanders] face-to-face on a daily basis.
"The manner in which these young players handle it with maturity is praiseworthy. At the end of day we are all friends off the field, but it was two of the most titanic battles we ever fought at junior level.
"We won those matches, against New Zealand, in New Zealand, despite all the backing they had."
The Kiwis brought out all the heavyweights of New Zealand rugby – All Black coach Steve Hansen and World Cup-winning former New Zealand coach Graham Henry visited the Baby Black team in their hotel the night before the semifinal – but SA U20 came from behind three times to clinch a semifinal thriller 32-25.
"I am just so proud of these guys," Theron said of his young charges, who also beat the Kiwis (33-24) in a pool match, after twice coming from behind.
Theron explained that planning for next year has already started.
With a season, or planning and playing period, that runs from the beginning of July to the end of June the next year, the build-up will include the SA School teams.
"A lot of these guys who played for us [in NZ], played n the SA Schools team the past two years," Theron said, adding that they use the fixtures against Argentina U20 as match practice ahead of he JWC.
By Jan de Koning
* Don't forget to return for the remainder of Jan de Koning's chat with SA U20 coach Dawie Theron, when he speaks of the Baby Boks that will be back next year and the prospects of a four-nations Rugby Championship style tournament for juniors