SA Rugby is often accused of not doing enough creative thinking.
And preparing a junior team based at the bottom of Africa for an international tournament is not an easy thing. Unlike the Six Nations teams, and the Australasian axis, the Junior Boks have little or no competition nearby to prepare against.
To prepare South Africa for the hardened competition they will encounter in Argentina at this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship in June, coach Chean Roux has to make do with a makeshift tournament here, a short tour to the UK and endless camps for the Junior Boks.
This while there is an U20 Six Nations championship and other teams get much more preparation than the Junior Boks.
So why not think out of the box? Why not add the Junior Boks, as a competing team, to the Varsity Cup competition?
It probably sounds a lot simpler than it would be, and to enter an already full competition would require some negotiation on SA Rugby’s part, but if a battle-hardened squad is the objective they are aiming for, then there is no better competition to get fit and ready for the international stage.
Look at it this way, the Junior Boks spend the first part of the year in camps anyway, and while some of them may well already perform for their University sides, Roux doesn’t have the luxury of testing out too many combinations. Not unless the recent competition against Namibia, Georgia and Argentina is taken into account.
But still, that is two weeks’ worth of match preparation, and a short tour is pretty much the same. The team already gathers in Stellenbosch and undergoes training as a group, so why not get them involved in the country’s toughest youth competition?
It would give Roux the chance to see who shines when things really get tough. To see who can step up onto the stage of a national television audience in front of a big crowd and measure themselves against some of the best young talent in the country. Sure there’d be an age gap and the Varsity sides would have an advantage, but that would probably only be a factor in the early rounds.
If the Junior Boks comprise the best youth players we have at under-20 level, why not let them compete? They don’t have to challenge for the title, but they can get a bunch of top-class matches against top-class opposition in a short time while travelling as a team.
By the time they reach the World Rugby U20 Championship, the Junior Boks would be a team that has moulded and refined their game plan, played together and know and trust each other on par with any side in European rugby.
The Junior Boks’ results in recent times have been disappointing. The rise of England and France in the junior world championship comes down to meticulous planning, a good system and teams that can play together before they head into battle.
Varsity Cup has already proved itself as a breeding ground for the top junior talent. Our schools have shown their strength at the recent World Schools Festival. But somewhere between schools and the under-20 level something goes wrong.
We all know we have the talent, but the current system isn’t working. It is hard to blame the coach for this because the warm-up fixtures are arranged according to the best of their ability and are often a costly exercise for SA Rugby to fund.
The time has come to think out of the box. To try something new. To use one of the world’s best youth competitions to South Africa’s advantage.
Yes there may be injuries to key players, but the long-term advantages would outweigh the short-term problems. This would be an opportunity to strengthen South African rugby and the Junior Boks should do all they can to use it, or their world championship fortunes won’t change.