Junior Springbok coach Dawie Theron praised the fighting spirit of his South African Under-20 team after they scored a thrilling 41-34 (21-26) comeback victory over New Zealand to end the IRB Junior World Championship on a high note in Vannes on Sunday.
South Africa rallied from 21-0 down after half an hour to eventually outplay four-time champions New Zealand before an enthusiastic and capacity crowd.
The Junior Boks scored three tries in the space of seven minutes in the first half to throw the game back into the melting pot and then took control in the final half hour to close out a memorable victory of character and skill.
After claiming their first tournament title in Newlands last year, they had to settle for the bronze medal this time around after suffering a heartbreak 18-17 against Wales in the semi-finals.
Speaking to the media afterwards, Theron said technical mistakes in the opening spell of the first half led to three early tries by New Zealand.
“We were a bit shell-shocked in the beginning of the first half and although we made a good start with a great scrum, we conceded three tries because of our own mistakes. I must admit I was very nervous at that stage, but the players kept going and eventually the momentum turned our way,” said Theron.
During halftime he told the players to keep the pressure on the New Zealand pack and to make their tackles count in midfield.
“The boys displayed that typical South African fighting spirit, even when New Zealand threatened to come back near the end. For us, this was such a vital match to win because of the manner in which we lost our semi-final. This was a great contest against a very good New Zealand team, and I am so proud of the boys.
“Yes, we did not play in the final, but we did manage to beat England, the current Six Nations champions, against France in front of their own supporters and got the better of New Zealand today,” explained Theron.
A delighted Junior Springbok, skipper Ruan Steenkamp, said his advice to his retreating team mates early on the first half was to keep believing in themselves.
“We made a terrible start and paid the price for some silly errors. But I told the guys to keep the focus and to up our intensity especially amongst the forwards. I am very glad we managed to do that because were then able to force New Zealand to make some tackles.
“We managed to get some pride back and we will enjoy a good over a tough opponent. Any win is great against New Zealand and I am just so happy that we could manage to pull ourselves together and end the tournament on a high note,” said Steenkamp.
He was also full of praise for the outstanding crowd support.
“It was so good to win in front of such an enthusiastic crowd. They appreciated the efforts of both teams and the players came off the field with a great feeling,” said the SA Under-20 skipper.
The team will arrive on Tuesday morning in South Africa.