We caught up with South Africa coach Dawie Theron after the Junior Springboks wrapped up a 3-0 series win over Argentina Under 20s to find out how preparations for the IRB Junior World Championship 2014 in New Zealand are going.
Dawie, how important is this annual series with Argentina in preparation for the Junior World Championship?
“These three matches were vital for our preparation. We treated them as full internationals because it was important for us to give players opportunities at international level. The series gave us a very important opportunity to test the depth of our training squad before we embark on the journey to the JWC.”
The dates of these matches mirrored the pool days at JWC 2014, why was it important for you to have that structure for this series?
“We decided to simulate the dates, training, conditioning and travelling times so that the players and management can get an actual feel of what activities will be like during the JWC. It was good to get into that tournament-like rhythm because it allows you to also reflect on your efficiency and effectiveness.”
What were you hoping to achieve with the series?
“Basically the series gave us a golden opportunity to test ourselves against a very good opponent, to pinpoint the shortcomings and to identify our strengths. With these in mind, I feel that we definitely ticked all the boxes and we now know exactly where we heading in terms of what we need to work on for the JWC.”
How would you sum up the three matches and what you learnt about your players through them?
“We learnt a lot from seeing the players in action in three matches on three different grounds. For instance, we learnt we have to drive them more towards keeping the high levels of intensity. We are a very physical and skilful side, but we realise we must keep the finger on the pulse and use our physical size to dominate more. I would like to work on our keeping our levels of urgency.”
You’ve had the players in camp for a prolonged period, how does that compare to previous years and what do you feel will be the benefits?
“Actually, the total amount of time we spent at camp with the players this year compared to last year is exactly the same. The difference is that in the past, we used to have several but shorter training camps. We decided to change our approach this year and rather let the training group spend that time together without interruption. The feedback from the players are all positive because they were able to build a good team spirit, get some momentum and got to know each other much better during the past three weeks or so. Personally, I feel that I’ve never seen a happier group of players together at this stage, so the change in system has obviously worked. Our coaching, medical and conditioning staff could work and monitor the players on a daily basis, and this gave us first-hand experience and a good indication of the players’ current condition.”
You’ve already selected your squad for JWC 2014, how difficult was it to make the final cut?
“We started the identification process a good while ago, but in the end it was very difficult to decide on the final 28 players because the wider training group consists of so many good and talented players. Our indicators for this tournament was physicality and skill, because the conditions in New Zealand will be very demanding. Experience also played an important role in the final selection. In the end, we selected players who have played in the domestic Varsity Cup, Vodacom Cup and Vodacom Super Rugby.”
You have a few players returning for a second or third tournament, how will they help the first-timers?
“It is vital to have a degree of experience in this tournament. We are happy that we could select players such as Handré Pollard, Jesse Kriel, Aidon Davis and Sergeal Petersen – who was selected last year, but withdrew because of injury. They will all play a huge role in leading the other players because of the fact that they know the JWC tournament drill already.”
You have two sets of twins in the squad, is it hard to tell them apart?
“Jesse and Dan Kriel your can spot apart, however, I found it impossible to tell the two Du Preez brothers – Dan and Jean-Luc – apart. Once, I mistakenly gave Dan a dressing down on a mistake he made. Halfway through the conversation he said ‘… excuse me coach but I think you want to talk to my brother, that wasn’t me!’”
What can we expect from South Africa at JWC 2014?
“We will be a very well-prepared and physical team. Our boys have a great team spirit, they are in a happy space at the moment and definitely looking forward to playing in New Zealand.”
What will it take if South Africa are to be crowned champions again?
“Our previous performances at the tournament has taught us many valuable lessons. This is an extremely tough tournament to win. To be successful, you must be on top of your game in each match and give 100 per cent. You also need a bit of luck with injuries, because the turnaround time is very tight in between games. It also helps if you have some degree of experience in your team because those players will calm the others around them and knows what to expect.”
Who do you think will be the biggest challengers to South Africa’s hopes?
“Right now, we regard Scotland in our first match as our biggest challengers. The tournament format is tough on you if you lose, so for us that match against the Scots will be the most important thing we will be focusing on. Of course, we know that New Zealand, in their own back yard, in front of their fans and in familiar conditions, are going to be an extremely big challenge. We will be looking to build a good foundation in our first match, but we are in no way underestimating Scotland.”
Finally, how inspiring is it for the players to have someone like Jonah Lomu as the tournament’s ambassador?
“All the players know Jonah Lomu is a legend of the game, who in my opinion sadly retired too early. He is a real icon and someone they really look up to for what you can achieve in this wonderful sport. So for the South Africans boys it is a real honour to have Jonah involved as tournament ambassador and I hope there will be an opportunity for the boys to meet him during the tournament.”