The Junior Springboks rugby squad arrived in South Africa on Tuesday from France where they claimed the bronze medal after beating New Zealand in a thrilling playoff match on Sunday before a capacity crowd in Vannes.
South Africa lost only one of their five fixtures at the tournament, the deciding semi-final against Wales, who beat them with a last gasp converted try to win the absorbing clash by just one point.
Ruan Steenkamp and his team mates comprehensively outplayed the USA in their first match and defeated England and France in their remaining pool fixtures to finish top of Pool A. The young South Africans then suffered a heartbreak last-minute loss against Wales, which meant they had to battle traditional rivals New Zealand for the bronze medal.
Shortly after his arrival in Cape Town on Tuesday, Theron said he believes that the current squad has laid the foundation for a good challenge next year, when the JWC will be hosted by New Zealand.
Theron, in his third year in charge of the SA Under-20 team, rates the JWC tournament as one of the toughest international rugby assignments.
“You must play five extremely competitive matches in just 18 days, which is a massive ask. The standard of play is very high because teams such as SA, New Zealand, England, Wales, Australia and France have a great percentage of players who are professionals.
“These players are aspiring to take the next step as senior professionals, and they are being coached by fulltime professional coaches,” added Theron, who led the Junior Boks to their first title win in 2012.
Although the Junior Boks failed in their title defence, Theron believes the selection process and system of talent identification aimed at assembling a competitive SA U20 team are delivering dividends.
“Apart from the loss against Wales, we managed to beat NZ and England twice in two years, and we defeated France in front of their own fans. The tension during the French game was enormous and the players told me afterwards they could hardly hear the calls because of the amount of noise inside the stadium.
“I regard these victories as vital stepping stones for the team, because NZ were dominating the competition just a short while ago while England are so dominant in the Six Nations. I believe we took a big step forward in our approach and method of play against these powerful teams.
“There is also a very good working relationship and understanding between our High Performance and Development Departments, the provincial coaches and the selection. The next step now would be to increase our level of mentorship of those young players once we have identified them.”
Theron added a major consideration for the future is to create more playing opportunities for the Junior Springboks before they actually play in the JWC tournament.
“We definitely need more time together as a playing unit before the start of the JWC. However, I am satisfied that we have laid a good foundation for a new squad team because we will have the likes of Handré Pollard, Aidon Davis, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Jessie Kriel all still eligible for next year,” explained Theron.