The future stars of world rugby will battle it out in the IRB Junior World Championship later this year and the excitement is already building in host nation South Africa, writes Ian Gilbert.
With the IRB Junior World Championship a proven springboard to higher honours, the excitement at the chance to see the global stars of tomorrow is already building for this year’s tournament in South Africa.
The Championship offers the country a chance to show its unrivalled appetite for the game, and rugby fans are already gearing up for the June kick-off – none more so than South African Rugby Union (SARU) President and IRB Vice Chairman Oregan Hoskins.
“South Africans are truly excited. We can’t wait for June to come and it’s going to be another massive celebration – like we had [at] the soccer World Cup two years ago – bringing the entire Rainbow Nation together and just being able to celebrate this great game called rugby football.”
South Africa has bid unsuccessfully to stage the Rugby World Cup since hosting the 1995 tournament, and Hoskins says the Junior World Championship gives his country the chance to show its prowess at staging a global gathering at any level.
“There’s huge hype around it – it’s being played in probably one of the most picturesque towns in the world (Cape Town) and in South African history Stellenbosch plays a particular place in South African rugby history.”
“It’s enormous. We’ve tried on a few occasions to get the senior Rugby World Cup and haven’t been successful on that front, so having the Junior World Championship in June goes a little way towards giving us the opportunity to stage a great rugby spectacle – one of the great properties of the IRB is the Junior World Championship.”
A lasting legacy
The Springboks’ triumph at RWC 1995 transcended mere sport, and Hoskins, who has spoken about the Junior World Championship as a platform by which to promote the game at grassroots level, particularly in township communities, is convinced of the wider importance of the tournament for his country.
“It’s just fantastic for the legacy that it will continue to leave for South Africa and South Africans,” he says.
“It’s really been good that we’ve been afforded the opportunity to host it and I think the Baby Boks are going to respond like the Springboks did in 1995 – the whole world wanted them to win, so there’s another opportunity that’s been given to the Rainbow Nation.”
Local broadcaster SuperSport is showing all 30 matches – a first in the history of the tournament – and Hoskins has no doubt the fans in Cape Town and Stellenbosch will make the 12 competing nations feel welcome.
“The teams that come are the best Under 20 teams in the world – the likes of New Zealand and England and Australia and France; really good Under 20 teams, so I think people will come out in their numbers to come and watch the games.”
“It’s going to be a massive, massive support base for the tournament and we are just excited and really looking forward to it, as we always do, being a rugby-crazy nation.”
Pathway to Test arena
There will be much interest in which players could follow the likes of New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and France's Jean-Marc Doussain - the first player to make his Test debut in a Rugby World Cup Final - in achieving full Test honours after excelling on the Junior World Championship stage.
Patrick Lambie and Francois Hougaard both made the Springboks after featuring in the JWC, and other Baby Boks, including 2011 Sevens Player of the Year Cecil Afrika, have made their country’s Sevens team – the Blitzbokke.
Hoskins sees the tournament, which runs from June 4-22 with triple header match days at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch and University of Western Cape Stadium in Cape Town, as the chance for his own countrymen to lay claim to a Springbok jersey.
“It seems to be becoming an acceptable fact now that if you get into your union’s Under 20 team, you’re not far away from reaching the ultimate goal.
“Professional players across the world are reducing in age – Under 20 is not young anymore, it’s actually regarded as quite acceptable that a lot of senior players playing Test rugby are getting younger and younger.
New Zealand the target
“The junior Bokke playing in June will certainly see themselves, if chosen, to be a step away from the ultimate honour, which is to play for the senior Springbok team, without a doubt.”
In 1995, the Springboks had to overcome the highly fancied New Zealand team to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time, and their junior counterparts would most likely face the same challenge in 2012.
The Baby Boks have come third three times and fifth once in the four instalments of the JWC played to date. Fifth place last time out means they are in a tricky group with England – their nemesis in 2011 – and Ireland and Italy.
No side to date has managed to beat New Zealand, let alone wrest the JWC title from the Baby Blacks' grip, but Hoskins is clearly excited by the chance to down South African rugby’s arch-rival.
“It’s not a secret that’s what it boils down to for us. We love the game of rugby and what it ultimately does come down to for South Africa, and the junior Boks, is to beat the All Blacks – it’s absolutely important and it will continue to be top of the agenda.”
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