U20 Championship: Springboard to Rugby World Cup glory
Following South Africa’s victory at Rugby World Cup 2019, 28 World Rugby U20 Championship graduates have now lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
Handré Pollard is in an elite club of just 15 players to have taken on and beaten the best in the world at junior and senior level.
To win the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2012 and then a Rugby World Cup just seven years later marks the South African fly-half as someone truly special.
Pollard also led the Junior Springboks to the U20 Championship final in June 2014, the same month and year that his test rugby career began.
While it was a whirlwind rise to the top, the humble 29-year-old never forgets the role that international rugby’s premier age-grade tournament had in developing him to be a 65-cap, and counting, Springbok.
“Winning it in 2012 will always be up there, but being able to captain the team in 2014 was a great honour and privilege,” he told World Rugby when asked about the positive influence the competition has had on him.
“I look back with so much joy and good memories. Playing in big-pressure games like that at such a young age is so valuable and so fun to experience. It taught me very important lessons very early on in my career that I could apply going forward.”
More than 900 players have followed the same path, from the World Rugby U20 Championship to the test arena, but few, if any, have taken the next step as quickly as the golden boy, turned man, of South African rugby. Just eight days separated the narrow defeat to England in the U20 Championship 2014 final and his first cap against Scotland.
And let’s not forget, Pollard’s contribution to both the 2012 and 2019 wins was immense.
The victory in 2012 in Cape Town was made all the more special by the fact that South Africa had lost their opening match, 23-19 to Ireland. Pollard, then only a few months past his 18th birthday, kicked 12 points as South Africa beat the Junior All Blacks 22-16 to claim their one and, to date, only U20 title.
“The fight in that team was something special,” Pollard recalled. “After losing the first game in the format that the U20 Championship is played, it is very hard to make the play-offs. But with the support of our home fans and getting to play at the iconic Newlands, everything just came together for us.”
Pollard would have an even bigger influence on the Rugby World Cup 2019 final, converting both his side’s tries and contributing six penalties to keep England at arm’s length in a 32-12 win.
In lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, Pollard joined Springbok team-mates Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff in adding their names to the list of players who have won both global tournaments.
“It was an amazing experience to go one step further and get the big one together, and create memories that will last a lifetime,” he said.
Very soon the latest Junior Springbok players will begin their quest to emulate Pollard’s class of 2012 and win a second U20 Championship title for their country, also on home soil.
Georgia are South Africa’s first pool opponent, at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch on 24 June, before they take on Italy in Paarl and then Argentina at the Athlone Stadium in Cape Town.
So what would his advice be to those seen as South Africa’s next generation of stars? “Just to enjoy every moment. It’s such a privilege to play in a World Cup at home. Enjoy the pressures that will come with it and embrace it.”