Baby Boks come just short
Harare – The Baby Boks went to New Zealand, crushed the Baby Blacks in their backyard but even though their grand mission to conquer the world failed, they did enough to provide hope that the future of the game in rugby-mad South Africa looks secure.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard, the Baby Boks skipper, was voted best player at the 2014 International Rugby Board (IRB) Junior World Cup with his 65 points from two tries, eight penalties and 16 conversions.
Pollard was part of the Baby Boks team that won the Junior World Cup at home two years ago when they beat New Zealand 22-16 at Newlands but last year they could not make the final in France after a semi-final loss to Wales.
The Welsh were then beaten in the final by England and the English boys returned this year to successfully defend their crown by beating the Baby Boks 21-20 in a tightly-fought contest that could have gone either way.
Maybe the energy they put into their thrilling semi-final win over old rivals New Zealand, where a late try by hooker Corniel Els powered them to a 32-25 meant that the Baby Boks, if the final went all the way to the wire, would be the ones likely to be caught out.
It was the second time they had met the Baby Blacks, in the same tournament, and the second time the Baby Boks won and, when one also considers their bruising tie against Samoa, maybe they were a team, if it came to the crunch, which were likely to lose steam.
In contrast their rivals England were never pushed in their semi-final as they strolled to a comfortable 42-15 thrashing of Ireland in a game in which they took full control with four first half tries.
The success by the English boys meant that they won back-to-back World Cups but for the Baby Boks this tournament represented a step forward, after their semi-final loss last year, and they will go into the next tourney in Italy next year confident that they can win the title again.
Nine of the players who played for the Baby Boks in New Zealand would be available for the next World Cup in Italy.
Baby Boks coach, Dawie Theron, told journalists at a media briefing in Cape Town, on their return home, that his boys had picked some lessons from their narrow defeat in the final and, crucially, their performance in New Zealand showed that the future of rugby in South Africa was secure.
The Baby Boks shared the same hotel with the Kiwis, during this tour of duty, and Theron felt it helped his team and the coach felt that their two matches against the hosts were of such high quality he could hardly remember any better matches, at this level of the game, featuring junior teams.
“The players could deal with them (Kiwis) face-to-face every day, and the manner in which the guys handled it, with maturity, it is praiseworthy,” said Theron.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“However, a final is a final, and it brings other things to the table.”
But, in Pollard, the Baby Boks had the best player of the tournament, a leader who led superbly from the front and who was the highest points scorer at the World Cup with a record points haul unmatched by any individual in the history of this tourney.
This was the last tournament for Pollard, who will be 21 when the next tourney is played in Italy next year, but the Bulls’ player’s spectacular rise has impressed Theron.
“Handré is just getting better and the whole team is unbelievably proud of him,” the Baby Boks coach said.
“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 win 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.”
The Boks did not win the big prize that their hearts desired, and which probably their talents merited, but to beat the Baby Blacks, not once but twice in their backyard, was a grand achievement, on its own, for a country that considers New Zealand the ultimate rival.
They might have lost to England in the final but everyone knows that the baby Boks will not go away any time soon and will be back to challenge for the crown they won at home next year in Italy.