South Africa will play defending champions England in the Junior World Championship final on 20 June at Eden Park after hooker Corniel Els scored from a driving maul in the 78th minute to secure a thrilling 32-25 win over New Zealand Under-20 on Sunday evening (local time) at the QBE Stadium in North Harbour, Auckland.
The result stretched the Junior Boks’ unbeaten run against NZ at the JWC to four wins after their two victories the past nine days in Auckland.
With sudden death extra-time looming and the scores locked at 25-25, the Junior Springboks produced a huge driving maul which saw Els dotted down in the corner to break Kiwi hearts.
NZ U20 had been overpowered by the South African outfit in the pool stage, but were a much improved side and they got off to the perfect start when hooker Hame Faiva raced down the touchline to open the scoring in the fourth minute.
South Africa captain Handré Pollard - who during the match became the leading point scorer at both JWC 2014 and in the competition's history - pulled his side ahead with a intercept try.
The Baby Blacks hit back again through wing Tevita Li but Pollard kicked a penalty to reduce the deficit to just 5 points at halftime (15-10).
The second half was a thrilling, tense affair and the nerve-wrecking seesaw nature continued with Junior Bok flyer Sergeal Petersen and NZ counterpart Vincent Tavae-Aso trading tries.
However, the South Africans finished the stronger side and they fought their way back from 25-20 down with two outstanding tries from centre Andre Esterhuizen and hooker Els.
In the earlier semi-final at the same ground, England outplayed Ireland 42-15 to qualify for their second consecutive JWC final.
An ecstatic Dawie Theron, the Junior Boks coach, said his team’s ability to absorb the pressure was the key factor on the night.
“It was like a proper Test match out there. It was full of tension, drama and excitement and I’m immensely proud of the boys. We kept our composure and I knew we were always in the game despite going behind at halftime and twice again in the second half,” explained Theron.
He added: “Credit must go the players. They showed huge fighting spirit and great composure to close out the game like that. Their composure can be attributed to what we do in training. During our sessions we keep the intensity high and always put them under pressure, because that is what you have to do to win games such as these,” Theron told the media at the post-match press conference.
The coach was again full of praise for his captain’s ability to deal with the high levels of intensity. “Handré Pollard was outstanding with his leadership and he led by example with his play. His intercept try in the first half was no fluke – that was the result of pressure,” added Theron.
The Junior Bok coach, who won the JWC title in 2012, said his forward laid the foundation for this outstanding win. “We always knew that NZ would target our mauls so we devised a plan to counter them. They performed much better in the lineouts. However, we had faith in our approach we also kicked much better in the second half, which forced them to play differently.
“Our physical strength up front and the way we controlled our set pieces were vital and in the end it was a fantastic maul which secured us the winning try. We will enjoy this win but we know that we haven’t won anything yet. England were outstanding against Ireland in the other semi-final and from tomorrow we will prepare very carefully for the final,” said Theron.
Pollard was again sublime in the no 10 jersey for the Junior Boks and he mixed his distribution skills and kicking game with some powerful runs at the NZ defence.
He became the highest JWC points scorer of all time when he scored his intercept try. According to Pollard NZ put his team under tremendous pressure during an absorbing first half.
“We started too slow but that was due to the pressure from them. We clawed our way back after they made all the play for most of the first half and at five points behind at halftime I knew we could do it if we could manage to do a bit more with the ball,” said the Junior Bok pivot.
England outplayed Ireland 42-15 to qualify for their second consecutive JWC final.
Junior Springboks: Tries: Handré Pollard, Sergeal Petersen, Andre Esterhuizen, Corniel Els Penalties: Pollard (2), Conversions: Pollard (3).
NZ Under-20: Tries: Hame Faiva, Tevita Li, Vincent Tavae-Aso, Penalties: Damian McKenzie (2), Conversions: McKenzie (2)