Barely two months after playing at the World Rugby U20 Championship in France last June, full-back Damian Willemse (pictured) added his name to the growing roster of players who have graduated from age grade international rugby’s marquee event to the senior stage when he won his first cap as a replacement against Argentina in The Rugby Championship.
In the same game, scrum-half Embrose Papier and utility back Curwin Bosch, two more to come through the ranks and perform at the U20 Championship, in 2016 and 2017, stepped off the bench as a further proof of the adage that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
While it is too early to tell which of the current crop of Junior Springbok players will follow in their footsteps, history shows us that the pathway between the two is in good order. Prior to last year’s tournament, there had been a total of 24 South Africa U20 players to have made the step up including such luminaries as 75-times capped Eben Etzebeth.
Speaking on the eve of his side’s involvement in an International U20 Series against Georgia, Argentina and a Namibian XV, long-time Junior Springbok head coach Chean Roux emphasised the importance of the U20 Championship as an invaluable vehicle for developing the stars of the future.
“I think it is very important, it is a stepping stone to getting into the senior side. If you look at guys like Damien Willemse and Embrose Papier, they were players that played last year and the year before, and Curwin Bosch too. We try and prepare them for the big tests if they go on and become a senior player," he said.
“There is a lot of communication (between the U20s and the Springbok setup) and, from time to time, some of the Springbok coaches will come and help us out, which is brilliant.”
While none of the three capped players mentioned by Roux are eligible for this year’s tournament in Argentina in June, there are still some survivors - Rikus Pretorius, David Coetzer, Asenathi Ntlabakanye and Phendulani Buthelezi - from the bronze medal-winning class of 2018.
While their likely presence in Argentina will offer some continuity, Roux says it is hard to offer comparisons from year group to year group.
"It’s always difficult to compare one group of players to the previous group But there is a bit of experience there, and we have had a little bit more preparation time so I think it’s easier to get them into a unit. But the real tests are coming up, and we’ll see whether we are on the right track or not with our combinations and tactics."
The Junior Springboks step up their preparations for the U20 Championship on Tuesday with a match against Georgia U20s. They will meet the Namibia XV in the second round in Cape Town on Saturday, 13 April, and then Argentina U20s in the final round on Wednesday, 17 April, in Stellenbosch.
Roux believes the fixtures will help him gauge whether his team are on track to perform well in Argentina. "It’s about them having as much time on the field as is possible and putting them into pressure situations. That’s why we play these warm-up games, to see how they adapt. Some of these boys were still in school last year, and the more we can put them in those pressure situations, the better they will get."
Roux’s team will open up their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign against Scotland on Tuesday, 4 June, before taking on Georgia (Saturday, 8 June) and New Zealand (Wednesday, 12 June).
“You always want to improve. We were third last year and this year we definitely want to play in the final. That’s our aim but, using the old cliché, we’ll take it one game at a time.”
New Zealand’s record at the U20 Championship points to that being the pivotal game as to whether the Junior Springboks fulfil their goal or not.
“If you want to win the World Cup you need to play everybody, but the draw is what it is, and we'll take that game as it comes.”
A taste of what to expect
For the time being, though, Roux’s focus is purely on the matches that lie immediately in front of his team.
“We had a few training sessions and training games in the last two months, but these matches will expose the players to proper international competition, which will give them a taste of what to expect in Argentina.
“Apart from exposing the players to the type of competition they will face in the World Rugby U20 Championship, it offers us similar preparation to the Northern Hemisphere teams, who participate in the U20 Six Nations in February and March."