In 2003, I guided the Junior Springboks to a World Cup title in France and, in the process, snapped New Zealand’s years of dominance at under-19 level. Fast forward 15 years and Chean Roux’s charges have their sights set on ruling the World Rugby U20 Championship which kicks off in Narbonne on Wednesday.
Winning a World Cup in France is no mean feat and the Junior Boks will face a number of challenges. First and foremost, the language barrier is an obstacle and, when South Africa play against hosts France in their final pool match, there is sure to be some underhanded tactics.
Ahead of our clash with France in Paris, our bus driver somehow managed to get lost and we arrived late for our warm-up. Owing to the fact that we took the scenic route, we rocked up late and had limited time to run through our pre-match rituals. Nevertheless, the game went well enough in front of a partisan home crowd and we led 20-5 when time was up on the clock.
However, much to our utter astonishment, the match continued! I asked the guy next to me what is “time’s up” in French. I was shouting, “le temps est écoulé” at the referee; I don’t think I have ever sworn quite as much during a match! My colourful language would have made Eddie Jones blush! After nine minutes of extra time, the hosts scored twice but we hung on for the victory. I was relieved when the final whistle sounded.
After the match, we attended a function and I saw a host of young French girls hanging around our players. When our bus arrived at the team hotel, I recognised the same faces sitting in the lobby. I put two and two together and realised that the players had told the young ladies where we were staying.
I decided to hatch a plan because I knew we had an opportunity to win the World Cup and I didn’t want any unwelcome distractions. I hurriedly called all the players down to the team room for a kontiki. I got the guys deep in conversation and every 15 minutes I sent Mervin Green, our team manager at the time, up to the lobby to see how many girls were left. 20 became 10, and then 10 became five. After about an hour, all the girls had left and the boys went off to bed.
I’m all for having fun but the main reason we won the World Cup was because we didn’t regard the trip to France as a sight-seeing or dating opportunity.
We enjoyed open communication, and the relationships between coaches and players were built on hard work, trust and mutual respect. My message to the class of 2018 is, if you don’t play as a team, you’ll die as individuals. In 2003, we weren’t at all the favourites – the previous year we had finished in fifth place – but our strength was that we were a united team.
Damian Willemse headlines the Junior Boks’ bill in France. The 20-year-old flyhalf is a phenomenal player and I rate him big time. He is an all-rounder and can do anything, but the team cannot expect him to win matches for them on his own. They will have to play in order to put him in a good position so that he can make decisions that can have a huge influence on the game.
Some have suggested players who have already turned out for Super Rugby teams shouldn’t be competing in the Junior World Cup. However, I think it’s absolutely fair. It’s a prestige cup and you want your best players to display their talents and show the world who they are.
Having followed the Junior Boks in their warm-up matches, I believe we are in a very good position to win the tournament again. Roux’s troops have enjoyed a good build-up and the fact that they overcame England is a confidence booster.
From a tactical standpoint, the big thing is about accurate execution, employing a simple game plan for every opponent and having a Plan-B in place should your original strategy not work effectively.
Of the 28 players in the current junior Bok squad 22 have junior international experience. Experience is crucial, but it’s also dangerous. In 2004, nine champions from the previous tournament were still eligible for selection, but they thought they had ‘arrived’ and we lost to New Zealand.
Experience is a great asset if you manage it correctly but if you don’t, the players can morph into prima donnas.
Eloff won two age-group world championships with the South African under-19 team beating New Zealand in the final. He led the Lions in Super Rugby for three seasons and most recently coached the Austin Huns to a national championship title in the USA. Follow him on Twitter: @LoffieEloff