Gerrit van Velze need look no further than Springbok captain John Smit for inspiration as he prepares to lead South Africa at the inaugural IRB Junior World Championship in Wales over the next three weeks.
After all only five years ago Smit was captaining South Africa to the IRB Under 21 World Championship title on home soil under coach Jake White, one of a number of that squad who have since gone on to establish themselves in the Springboks side.
The Smit and White relationship of course also resulted in a second Rugby World Cup success for South Africa in France last year; an occasion which Van Velze admits was an achievement which transcended the boundaries of sport.
“For us that victory of John Smit and his team meant a lot to South Africa, it is not just a sport but a country becoming one and for us being part of that process is a huge challenge, but it makes the reward that much sweeter,” insisted Van Velze.
“We want to be part of it, the hard work has been done and we just have to do it on the pitch. We are lucky that we know quite a few of the players [Springboks] and they have been sending SMSs and telling us all the best of luck and just go and enjoy it.
“For us as a young player using this as a stepping stone it is a huge privilege to be there and to know that they sat in the same position about three years ago, the same as me knowing that John Smit captained his side and they were victorious and now he won the senior World Cup.
“For me it is a huge challenge personally to step in his footsteps.
“It’s true a captain and coach comes a long way and Jake and John did it, so there is nothing said that it can’t be done again. You have got Frans Steyn who came straight out of the Junior World Cup into the senior Bok squad and he has performed all the way.
Experience a bonus for Baby Boks
“This is a stepping stone and players could just grab the opportunities with both hands.”
The number 8 came close to following in Smit’s footsteps at last year’s IRB Under 19 World Championship in Northern Ireland, the South Africans many people’s tips for the title after impressive performances to the final but they ultimately fell 31-7 to New Zealand 31-7 in the final.
Some two thirds of that squad return for a final shot at an age grade title, a factor which Van Velze believes could work in South Africa’s favour with the players familiar with each other and possessing the experience to ground out results.
“For sure it is going to help us. We have got 18 players of last year’s tournament which makes it a lot easier for the players to adapt to each other,” he said. “In tough times we are going to bank on that and we are sure that experience picked up last year and playing in the final will help us.
“I think we have got key players, we have enough young players that can play next year in the same tournament, we have got enough leaders in our squad and I think the fact that combinations have been tested and seen that they work is a strong point of us and we were in tough conditions last year as a team and times when we need to trust each other and I think that can be a huge bonus for us this year.”
Stepping into the unknown
However not knowing much about their Pool B opponents USA, Samoa and Scotland means that Van Velze and his team-mates will have to hit the ground running from the outset at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.
“It is quite difficult because we haven’t seen one of the teams play, we don’t know how they play, we don’t know the players, so it is going to be difficult and the first 10 minutes probably of every game will be quite boring, just to test and feel what the opposition is like.
“But for us we have to play our brand of rugby and that is going to start early on, that is what we have to do, play our game. If you can’t win the pool stages you are never going to play in the final, so we have to start good, we have to build some confidence and just let the players enjoy themselves in the pool stages and come semi-final, final time is anyone’s ball game.
“You are not yet in the final, you have to work hard, so to settle in means a lot to the players, just to build their confidence and like a lot of players play good when they have confidence, so to settle in and come semi-final time the players know what is expected of them and to produce the goods.”
That said though, Van Velze would love another shot at New Zealand in the final.
“That wasn’t very easy to swallow last year, so we would like to have them again and if everything goes good we would like to play them and see what happens this year.”
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