The Junior Boks jet off to Argentina today to make an assault on the World Rugby U20 Championship over the next three weeks with most observers having written off their chances already.
That’s an understandable position given that SA U20 last won the title on home soil in 2012. It was also the only time they have won it in this format.
Twitter has been awash with critics of the squad, lamenting that only a handful of players in the squad attended South Africa’s preeminent rugby schools – Grey College, Paarl Boys High, Paarl Gym, Paul Roos, and Affies.
But perception and reality are often skewed because our individual schools tend to win comfortably against top NZ high schools when they meet. The argument therefore is that the Junior Boks should easily continue that winning way against the rest of the of the world simply by filling squads with the best players from those schools.
That’s a massive oversimplification of the situation for many reasons, but it seems to be the predominant logic on social media.
Firstly, the majority of the U21 winning teams of 1999, 2002 and 2005 were not from the big five.
In 2005 there were only eight players out of the 27-man squad from those five schools. In 2002 the number was six out of 27 and in 1999 there were only five out of 29 players used. Even more recently in the 2012 winning team, there were only six out of 31 players from those schools.
And it has always been that way. Some years there are more and some less, but the big five schools have never provided the backbone of the Junior Bok team in terms of player numbers.
How those players from top schools are falling out and missing out is a column for another day but the reality is that SA has many schools providing opportunities to players with potential.
Let’s also get this out of the way – those top five schools have produced very few black players, which is one of the pillars of SA Rugby’s contract with government. Junior Bok coach Chean Roux and the entire national Rugby department has to find and nurture Test quality black players and meet transformation targets of 50%.
I can already hear the argument that it proves that transformation weakens sides but that is again a gross over-simplification.
As we’ve already shown, successful Junior Bok teams are not reliant on the top five schools in the country.
There is not one dominant school with predominantly black players, which is why Roux and his colleagues have to target the right players as young as possible. And they generally aren’t going to the top five schools.
Furthermore, the argument that Grey College, Paarl Boys High, and Paul Roos regularly thrash NZ’s top schools is proof of their right to fill Junior Bok teams ad infinitum is over simplified.
Most NZ schools are filled with players from their local area and very few are drafted as is the case here. So they have up and down years dependent on the crop of players.
Also school rugby in NZ is important but not as important as club rugby, where most of their top talent develops. It’s not comparing apples with apples.
Another misconception is that the Junior Boks’ failure to won the world championships for six years provides further evidence of how far we’ve fallen behind NZ in particular.
The reality is that the Junior Boks have beaten NZ the last four times they have played since 2014. What has changed is that the northern hemisphere structures at junior level have drastically improved in the last decade.
Between 1999-2012 the Southern Hemisphere’s big three had won the various World Championships all but once, France winning a lone U21 world title.
In the last five years at the U20 World Champs England have won three times and France once while Wales and Ireland have also been runners-up. There has been a distinct shift north where players are groomed, not at schools, but at clubs.
That is perhaps the lesson we should be learning. In SA our schools play a vital role in player development but they only go so far.
The drop-off in participation and vital game management and skills development immediately after school via a club is missing. Only the cream are drafted into the provincial system and of those only a few make it to the top.
There is no one system that works, but in SA we have lost a crucial step that people such as Roux have to bridge as they try to develop World Championship-winning teams.