Argentine roots to Boks' RWC 2007 success
By Frankie Deges
Jake White and John Smit were undoubtedly the architects of South Africa's success at Rugby World Cup 2007, the Springboks having proved on a cold October night at the Stade de France that they were the best team in a memorable tournament in France.
White as head coach and his captain Smit gave the team its form and ensured there were almost no chinks in their armour as the Springboks dominated their rivals to lift the Webb Ellis Cup they will defend come New Zealand in 2011.
The relationship between coach and captain was crucial and one which started some eight years earlier at an Under 21 tournament played in Argentina, where, later this year, the IRB Junior World Championship will be held.
Smit recalls those early days in his autobiography Captain in the Cauldron, which was published in 2009.
"In 1999, Jake White and I hooked up for the first time when I captained the SA Under 21 team in the IRB Championships in Argentina. He was our assistant coach under head coach Eric Sauls.
"Jake was just so organised. He brought to the Under 21 team what the Springboks were doing the year before (he had been a technical assistant on Nick Mallett's Springbok management team). He had analysis systems and video sessions that were new to that level of rugby. He gave us the power to be a professional team within a short period."
South Africa's Under 21s had a great tournament, beating Wales (the Six Nations champions earlier that year) 48-9, England 39-5 and defending champions Australia 24-12 to top Pool A with 17 tries for and one against. France were beaten in the semi finals by a comfortable 45-11 margin, leaving the aspiring Springboks to face the New Zealand Colts in the final.
Preview to the real deal
As the IRB Junior World Championship to be played in the Litoral region of Argentina will prove, age grade rugby is a preview to full international honours. Of the 224 players from the eight nations participating in the 1999 tournament, 84 of them went on to play for their country's senior side on the international stage.
So, at the old Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club Stadium, South Africans and New Zealanders clashed with the future ahead of them but hungry for the instant glory that would come to the winners on that July afternoon.
The two squads that day provided many a future test player, including the likes of Doug Howlett, Chris Jack, Carl Hayman, Aaron Mauger and Jerry Collins, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Lawrence Sephaka, Butch James, De Wet Barry, Daniel Vickerman (for Australia), Shaun Sowerby, Hendo Scholtz and Gerrie Brits.
The final, at a packed stadium, was vibrant and only decided well after the 40 minutes had elapsed in the second half.
As Argentine daily La Nación described the end of the game the following day, "they were seven never-ending minutes of South African attacking and New Zealand defence. Until (Coenraad) Groenewald saw some light to the left and (Frikkie) Welsh broke to draw the game and go to extra time if his teammate (Johan) Roets failed with the conversion. But the accurate right-footed kick of the full back ended the game and started the South African celebrations."
White's recollection of those days in Argentina was a sign of what was to come. "The previous year we had already beaten the NZ Colts and beating them started to become something the players were getting accustomed to. That tournament left a mark on all of us."
Thus, in an age group tournament, a relationship that would, two cycles later, end with the winning of a second Rugby World Cup for South Africa had begun.
"Even back in 1999, it was clear Jake had an excellent understanding of the game and a very good rapport with players," continued Smit. "But to this day I say his greatest talent is his ability to choose a balanced rugby team. And at Under 21 level he identified that I was a leader of the future."
Smit played the first of his 93 tests less than a year after that Under 21 success and when White took over as Springbok coach at the beginning of 2004, he did not hesitate in turning to the front rower.
"I told John that he'd be an extension of me on the field. But he was also a man I could confide in, and he could question me - but not in front of the team," explained White in his autobiography In Black and White.
That first year South Africa won the Tri Nations. With the World Cup, these were the three trophies Smit won as captain: the one of 1999 paving the way for the rest. In all three, White had also played a role.
The next generation of South Africans hoping to follow in Smit and co's footsteps will be one of 12 Under 20 teams that will be in the Litoral region playing in the third IRB Junior World Championship from 5-21 June. The Baby Boks will play in Pool C against Tonga (at the Club Atlético Estudiantes de Paraná), Scotland (at Colón de Santa Fe) and Australia (Colón de Santa Fe).
A familiar face will again be at the helm of a South African age grade side in Argentina with Sauls returning to the country where he won that Under 21 tournament 11 years ago.