Hosts South Africa have ended New Zealand’s dominance of the IRB Junior World Championship after second-half tries from scrum half Vian van der Watt and centre Jan Serfontein secured a 22-16 win to the delight of a sold-out Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on Friday.
For the first time the two sides contesting the final had both lost a match in the pool stages, South Africa being rocked on the opening day with a 23-19 loss to Ireland and New Zealand then suffering a first ever loss on the JWC stage, 9-6 to Wales, on day two.
Regarded as “a dream final” by both camps given the traditional rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand, it lived up to all expectations from the moment the two teams emerged onto the hallowed Newlands turf to cheers from a crowd of more than 35,000.
The two anthems were sung with great gusto and the determination of the New Zealanders to retain their mantle as world champions was unmistakable as captain Bryn Hall led his players in the haka, but the South Africans were equally motivated to win on home soil.
South Africa’s forwards were instantly on the front foot, driving their opponents back at will in the opening minutes but the Baby Blacks refused to let their line be breached and ultimately it was a Handre Pollard penalty that opened the scoring in the 10th minute.
First try for Keresoma
His opposite number Ihaia West levelled the score just three minutes later, before South Africa captain Wian Liebenberg was denied the opening try by a great tackle from full back Martin McKenzie and flanker Jimmy Tupou, the latter managing to turn him and get his body under the ball.
The TMO decision gave Pollard another chance to kick at goal with referee Greg Garner playing advantage to South Africa, and the 18-year-old – who replaced Johan Goosen in the squad just before the tournament – made no mistake again.
West had a chance to again level matters, but his penalty cannoned back off the posts and South Africa were able to clear their lines. However, they could not stop Milford Keresoma scoring the opening try in the 34th minute to give New Zealand the lead for the first time.
Quick thinking by West and a break from McKenzie saw the ball reach hooker Nathan Harris, who made no mistake finding wing Keresoma, who was not going to be stopped as he raced over the line, despite Pollard’s best attempts to deny him.
Pollard did cut the deficit to single point with his third penalty just before the break, but the destination of the distinctive trophy at that point was anyone’s guess, both sides leaving everything out on the field in their quest to win the title.
A kick over the defence by Hall earned New Zealand a five-metre scrum and the chance to extend their lead in the 46th minute, but the South Africans destroyed their opponents in the scrum to win the penalty to clear their lines.
Junior Player of the Year
Two minutes later South Africa were back in front after the TMO ruled that Van der Watt had just beaten his opposite number Hall to the touchdown after the scrum half got his toe to a loose ball to kick ahead.
Pollard missed the conversion and West had cut the deficit to 14-13 before both sides had a player sent off in the 58th minute, second row Paul Willemse for allegedly pulling the hair of prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who was also red-carded for retaliation.
South Africa took a giant stride towards the title in the next five minutes as first Pollard kicked a drop goal and then Serfontein, who was named IRB Junior Player of the Year after the final, rounded off a flowing move to the delight of the crowd.
New Zealand, though, refused to surrender their title without a huge fight and kept battling to the final whistle. They could only manage another penalty from the boot of West and so it was that a huge roar greeted the final whistle.
Liebenberg therefore became the second South African captain to lift a world title on home soil, following in the footsteps of Francois Pienaar at Rugby World Cup 1995, both ironically wearing a jersey with a number 6 on the back.
South Africa captain Wian Liebenberg: "Well it was definitely a dream come true, it was awesome and it was great to see the hard work we put in finally come off for us. It was a tough match. We said we wanted to take them onin their set pieces and mauls and I think that’s what we did tonight, we took them on in the core phase of rugby.
"New Zealand really played well, they gave it everything and really made it a tough contest for us. But I think at the end of the day we wanted to put the pressure on them, play in their half and that’s how the two tries came. I always believed in the ability that we do have and it could pull us through, so we just needed to pull together as a team and that’s what helped us win.
"It’s a great privilege being part of this jersey, I mean there are so many that have worn this jersey before me and it’s just great to be part of that legacy in South African rugby. It’s all tournaments, we said in the team that we wanted to be able to tell a story and make history and I think that’s what we did tonight for our country."
New Zealand captain Bryn Hall: "We are devastated, of course we came here with good thoughts to win the game but unfortunately we didn't get that result. We didn't win the battle up front but I'm really, really proud of my boys. They stuck to it the whole 80 minutes and I can't ask for anything more than that. I'm very proud to be New Zealander and I think the boys did as much as they could, it was a great contest and I want to thank all the supporters who came out, 30 something thousand people, it's an honour to be part of this.
"I think their lineout drive was really good, we just couldn't stop it. We talked about it at half time but unfortunately we couldn't execute it, that's where they got all their front foot ball, so maybe if we could have stopped that we would have got a different outcome.
"That's what we spoke about the whole week, to never give up. It's out last opportunity to wear the black jersey, and whether you die or leave some blood or tears out here, you make sure you leave it all on the field and you make sure you don't leave any 'what ifs' or 'buts', you make sure that you just put everything out here and just leave it all here on the field."
South Africa coach Dawie Theron: "It' unbelievable, this is the best rugby experience of my life and I played for the Springboks for 13 Tests an I must say that was very very special, but this moment words can't describe it."
"You can see what it meant to the guys, especially after the first loss against ireland, and they carried the whole weight of the nation on their shoulders. Under pressure two things can happen, you can either scatter apart or you can gel together and become like a rock."
New Zealand coach Rob Penney: "I'm really disappointed obviously but really proud of the guys because they gave it a good crack. We were just up against to many hurdles tonight.
"I think there's a number of areas (where we lost it), I think we didn't quite capitalise on the opportunities we created and we knew we had to take every opportunity we got. I thought the South Africans were very competitive, they tried to beat us up front, which they succeed in doing a few times.
"They'll be a lot better for it, they're a great bunch of young guys that have had a wonderful experience. I think they've been in an environment where they've nurtured and grown together and learned a lot about
themselves as rugby players but also, more importantly, a lot about themselves as people, it's been a very valuable experience."
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