Pat Lambie and Francois Hougaard have come a long way since playing for South Africa in the IRB Junior World Championship, both making the step up to the Springboks and playing at Rugby World Cup 2011.
However, they have not forgotten the role that the Under 20 tournament played in their development and enabling them to live the dream of playing Test rugby for the Springboks.
“Everything started for me when I first played age group rugby for South Africa,” recalled Hougaard, who has clocked up 15 Tests for the Springboks since making his debut against Italy in November 2009.
“I was lucky enough to play in the final Under 19 World Cup (in Belfast in 2007) as well as the first Junior World Championship (in Wales in 2008).
“I never played in the Craven Week at school and it was after the tournament in Belfast that I was signed up to play for the Blue Bulls. I would regard my junior appearances for South Africa as my first steps to playing professional rugby.
“I was immensely proud to play for South Africa – it was probably the proudest moment of my rugby career as a young player – and I will always remember how tough the rugby was in those two tournaments.”
Lambie, two years younger than Hougaard, was one of the stand-out players at JWC 2010 in Argentina when South Africa had to settle for third place, just as they had in Hougaard’s time in 2008.
“Playing in the Junior World Championship in Argentina in 2010 was the first time I represented South Africa on the international rugby stage and is something I will always be very proud of,” admitted Lambie, who was fast-tracked into the Springbok fold, making his Test debut against Italy just five months later.
“It was a special few weeks in my life to play in the green and gold against the best in the world.
“The JWC was definitely a stepping stone and platform for my career. I also made my breakthrough at the Sharks after returning from Argentina and I made my Test debut for the Springboks later that year.”
Their minds may now be on preparations for South Africa’s three-Test series with England next month, but they both believe that the Junior Boks have the abilities to claim a first Junior World Championship title.
“Playing at home in a tournament like this will add some pressure, but it’s also a special occasion and I know our players have what it takes to win the tournament,” insisted Hougaard. “They just need to knuckle down and do the hard work and focus on the task at hand.”
Lambie, meanwhile, had some simple advice for all the teams at JWC 2012.
“My advice to players selected to represent their countries would be to enjoy every minute of the tournament, as it only comes around once in your career. You can build friendships that will last you a lifetime and it will show you what is needed at the top level of the game.”