Last year’s Junior World Championship victory was about as good as it could get for South Africa. Not only did they claim their first title in front of a 35,000 strong home crowd at Newlands, but they also beat the tournament’s most successful side to date – New Zealand.
The Baby Blacks had won every tournament since the inaugural event in 2008 and had lost only one of 24 matches going into their fifth final.
For South African captain Wiaan Liebenberg, beating the tournament favourites 22-16 was made that little bit extra special as he was wearing number six on his back, the same number that Francois Pienaar had worn when leading the Springboks to Rugby World Cup glory on home soil in 1995.
“Just to be talked about in the same sentence as Francois Pienaar is definitely a privilege,” Liebenberg told Total Rugby Radio. “There have been so many rugby players before us and they did great things before us so it’s great to be counted as part of that legend because we want to aspire to be Springboks one day.
“Going into the competition we knew that New Zealand had won it four times in a row so that inspired us to take it away from them in a way, especially on home soil we didn’t want to allow them to come to our home country and win it for five times in a row so we were definitely up for the challenge.”
While the title decider itself was billed as a “dream final” between two of rugby’s heavyweights, getting to it was not a straight forward affair for either side with last year’s final the first to be contested by two teams that had lost in the pool stages.
South Africa made the worst possible start to their campaign by losing to Ireland, while New Zealand suffered a first ever loss in the Junior World Championship at the hands of Wales. The loss to Ireland put the Baby Boks in a precarious situation as they had to not only beat England but also score four tries to reach the semi finals – something they managed with a scintillating second-half display.
The time of my life
“From the beginning of the tournament we said we were going to take it game by game and I have to give Ireland credit,” admitted Liebenberg. “They were really well prepared for that game and they outplayed us on that night so after that we were relying on teams other scores to get us into the place we wanted to be.
“Miraculously that did work out, but I mean we were in a position where we had to beat England with four tries but it was only on the night that we were brilliant. We went into the England game and knew that it was a tall order to score four tries against a well coached English side but I knew that if we pulled that one through then nothing would stop us in the rest of the competition.”
A relatively straightforward 35-3 semi-final win over the tournament’s surprise package Argentina meant that confidence was high going into the final for Liebenberg and his side, but the Baby Blacks’ clinical display to avenge their earlier loss to Wales meant that to get their hands on the trophy the South Africans would have to overpower the four-time champions.
“The first thing when I think about the final is going in at half-time. I think the score was 10-9 to New Zealand, I remember we were calm but there was still that possibility of losing and we knew that the game wasn’t over yet,” recalled Liebenberg.
“In that final game something I will never forget was when we had a scrum on our five metre line from the go line and it was a New Zealand ball. We scrummed over them and when we look back for me that was a deciding factor in that game. As a tight five and a front row pack you work hard on your scrum so that was definitely something I will remember always.”
As the host nation the home support was also a crucial factor for the Baby Boks, and playing at Newlands is something that Liebenberg will never forget.
“For any player in the world, when you think about top rugby stadiums, Newlands is definitely one that comes to mind. Being able to play there in front of a full capacity crowd against the All Blacks – if you’re a South African boy you always dream about playing against the All Blacks – that was the time of my life and I will never forget that. I made a lot of friends with the other teams and you get to play against world-class sides.”
Liebenberg is now playing his rugby with the Bulls and will be watching his fellow countrymen from home when they begin their title defence against USA on Wednesday in France.
The Junior World Championship has proven to be a springboard to the Test arena and although Liebenberg is yet to get a cap for the Springboks he is certainly on the right path. That said he is still quick to draw on his experience at JWC 2012 and believes it really helped shape his character as a player.
“It tested me as a rugby player and my character as well as in between games you have a four-day turnaround so you have to every day physically and mentally prepare yourself. The stress and tension is high because you want to perform well, especially on home soil you don’t want to disappoint the fans, so for me I learned to handle the stress and just concentrate on the opportunity at hand.”
Handrè Pollard is the only member of South Africa’s victorious squad returning in 2013, the fly half proving to be a key figure last year despite only making the squad when first choice Johan Goosen was ruled out just a few days after Dawie Theron announced his selection.
His experience – particularly with IRB Junior Player of the Year 2012 Jan Serfontein withdrawn from the squad this week having been part of the Springboks’ training camps – will be key and Liebenberg is sure that the Baby Boks will perform to the highest standard in France.
“When I think about those players they are quality players and they have the experience of last year’s World Cup and that’s a major factor when it comes to decision making in the team and in the game so they know what it takes to be a world-class team.
“I know when you are a South African rugby player you are always fighting until the end and I think, no, I know, that they have chosen the best guys available and they will come back and make us proud.”
And a final piece of advice for South Africa’s class of 2013?
“The only tip I want to give them is that they must enjoy it. There are not a lot of people who get to play the competition more than once so just enjoy it. I understand the difficulty of playing away from home as well but they must just go away and enjoy it and I do believe they have the talent to win this thing, but most of all just go and make memories.”