The Junior Springboks came agonizingly close to regaining the IRB Junior World Championship title from England, but the defending champions did just enough to win a close fought battle 21-20 at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
Junior Boks coach, Dawie Theron, and captain, Handré Pollard, both praised the team for their overall performance during the three week event. Both agreed England did very well to withstand a barrage of South African pressure late in the second half.
Theron said it was bitterly disappointing to lose by a single point in what was a very physical battle.
“Finals are determined by small margins and we had two or three moments in the match where I thought it could definitely go our way. However, it wasn’t to be and England deserve credit for their ability to keep their composure when we put a lot of pressure on them.
“It is bitterly disappointing to lose, even by a single point, but I am extremely proud of this team. We have spent a lot of time together, the guys worked their socks off for each other and they gave everything for their jersey.
“This is an extremely talented group of players and I believe our future look bright with these guys coming through the ranks. We became a close family the past three months and all of us are hurting at the moment,” said Theron who led the Junior Boks to success in 2012.
Pollard said despite the heartbreak of defeat, there were a lot of positives to take from the tournament.
“We fought hard, but we were not good enough tonight. We played well, but they disrupted us at the set piece. I am still proud of the guys though. We played for each other and for the jersey till the end. Congratulations to England,” Pollard said.
He also had some comforting word for his team mates: “I think the experience these guys got in this tournament taking them forward in their careers will help them develop and there is a lot of these guys who will be back next year and hopefully we can win it again.”
“You learn more from defeat than winning and the guys have got to learn from this, go back home and just keep working hard,” said Pollard.
A number of chances late in the match went astray and the South Africans could not get back in front after conceding the lead just before the break. Both sides had a nervous start, but with the England line-out dominated by lock JD Schickerling in the first half, the Junior Boks applied the pressure.
This resulted in an opening penalty to captain Handrè Pollard. England made scores even as the South Africans fluffed the kick-off, but a Jesse Kriel try soon restored the lead.
The midfielder ran onto a deft Pollard chip to score.
Unfortunately the South Africans started made some unforced errors and England capitalised on that, kicking a penalty and scoring a try through wing Nathan Earle just before the break. This gave them a slender halftime lead of 11-10.
The second half started well for England as fly half Billy Burns kicked another penalty to lead 14-10.
Pollard replied with a penalty, but a powerful maul by England secured a second try when Joel Conlon went over under a heap of bodies. The successful conversion stretched their lead to 21-13.
A second try by Kriel, easily converted by Pollard, gave the Junior Boks all to play for in the last 10 minutes. Pollard came close with a drop goal attempt, but his team ran out of time and England kept their composure to remain the JWC champions.
England - Tries: Nathan Earle, Joel Conlon. Penalties: Billy Burns (2), Aaron Morris.
South Africa - Tries: Jesse Kriel (2). Conversion: Handre Pollard (2). Penalties: Pollard (2).