Twelve months ago Dawie Theron had the pressure of coaching the host nation at the IRB Junior World Championship. This year that weight of expectation comes by virtue of South Africa being the defending champions after a memorable win over New Zealand in Cape Town.
We caught up with the South Africa Under 20 coach during their recent training camp to look back on their tour to Argentina, discover how hard it was to select his final squad for JWC 2013 in France and how it compares to that title-winning class of 2012.
You’ve recently returned from the tour to Argentina, how important is this annual tour to your JWC preparations?
The tour to Argentina was a vital part of our JWC preparations. Unlike the European based teams, we don’t have a regular competition such as the Six Nations, so for us it was vital to get as much preparation and planning done before our final holding camp. which is four days before our departure to France.
What were your targets when you set off on the tour?
We wanted to test several aspects of our game plan and also for the guys to get to know each other a little bit better.
How do you assess each of the three matches?
Every coach will tell you that he hates losing, and I was disappointed that we lost the series 2-1. However, we learnt some valuable lessons and, apart from the results, we achieved much of our goals that we set for ourselves.
Despite the series defeat, what did you learn about your players and what are any positives you will take away from the tour?
Both the players and coaches got to know each other better, because before the tour we only saw each other very briefly, for a couple of days at a time. So we got the chance to bond and gel as a unit.
What do you think the players learned from the series and the defeats?
The players now have a better understanding from what it means to travel, the pressure and demands that goes with that and that they have to be mentally tough to play matches in quick succession. The defeats showed us our weaknesses and the areas where we have to improve upon.
How do you assess what you saw of Argentina – will they be a threat again this year?
Argentina will always be a threat, not just when they play at home. They are good in the set pieces and obviously love their forward play, and they have a solid kicking game which works well for them when needed.
Not long after returning from South America you unveiled your squad for JWC 2013 – how difficult a selection was that?
The final squad selection was the end of a long and detailed process, which started with trials late last year and included several training matches against some of our top university teams. We tried to cast the net as wide as possible and to give as many opportunities as possible to everyone that was identified as part of the selection process. The tour to Argentina was a final chance for us to have a look at the squad we had in mind before the announcement.
How would you sum up the strengths or qualities of this team with its mix of JWC winners, Sevens players, Super Rugby players and Vodacom Cup players?
It is a nice mixture of a little bit of experience and exciting prospects. The Sevens players bring along a lot of excitement and energy, while someone such as Handrè Pollard knows what it takes to play under such pressure at the JWC. The majority, however, have not experienced the pressure of such a tournament. The key for us though will be to strike the right balance.
How does it compare to the 2012 side that won the title?
I find it extremely difficult to compare teams, because each team has its own characters, strengths and weaknesses and potential ... so I don’t want to venture into that territory!
Two players that stand out for followers of Super Rugby will be Jan Serfontein and Sergeal Petersen, how pleasing is it to have been able to name those two?
We are extremely happy to have Jan and Sergeal in the squad. Both are very talented players and exciting to watch. Jan has the experience of playing in last year’s tournament while Sergeal played for the SA Schools last year and made a good debut in the 2013 Super Rugby competition with the Southern Kings.
What will you be focusing on over the coming weeks before the tournament kicks off?
We have just completed a training camp which included a match against Namibia in Stellenbosch (South Africa Under 20s won 92-27). Our focus now will be to fine tune all aspects of our game plan and then it’s off to France.
How difficult is it going to be to defend the title in France?
Apart from Jan and Handrè, we are essentially a new squad. We are playing in a tough pool which includes the USA, England and hosts France, who will play with pride and passion in front of their home crowd. I know it’s a cliché, but we will have to take it one game at a time.