The dust had hardly settled after the U18 Craven Week when the country’s best players were called up for national duty with SA Schools and SA Schools A, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
SA Schools spent just four days together before the start of the U18 International Series, yet went on to win their matches against teams who had played together in the U18 European Championship. The hosts, under coach Lance Sendin and captain Salmaan Moerat, beat Wales 23-17, thumped European champions France 42-3 and edged England 13-12.
‘Winning three internationals in a short space of time and with only a few practice sessions was an exceptional feat,’ says Sendin. ‘This is a talented group with excellent rugby skills and knowledge. Forwards and backs complemented each other so well that we were able to play a 15-man brand of rugby that suited them all.’
The SA Schools squad was dominated by Western Province players, eight of them from the No 1-ranked Paarl Boys’ High.
Neither WP nor Boishaai have lost a match in the past two years.
When appointing the captain and regular starters in key positions, the coaches opted for form but also for players with a winning mentality, which proved vital.
Against Wales, SA Schools played with flair at times, but it was the hard work up front that secured the win. Against France, they played with more freedom and exposed a feeble defence.
SA Schools’ last match was against England, who had lost to France and SA Schools A. While many predicted a comfortable win for the hosts, they needed a late try from Moerat to snatch victory.
‘We knew England would be our toughest test,’ says Sendin. ‘They have a process where they identify talent at U16 level and those elite players are thrust into a development system. They have continuity in staff as the coaches who manage their U20 team are also involved at this level. England were wounded, but of
all the teams in the series they were the side we feared most.’
Against England, there were no flashes of brilliance from the star-studded SA Schools backline, their scrum didn’t dominate like it had earlier in the series and there were few goal-kicking opportunities for fullback Gianni Lombard. What SA Schools did have was a winning mentality and a composed leader in Moerat.
‘I’m glad we had a tough game, so that these young men know what international rugby is about,’ says Sendin. ‘It was fantastic to see the character the team showed to fight to the end.’
After the Springboks’ 26-24 defeat to Argentina in Salta, SuperSport pundit Nick Mallett questioned whether good on-field decision-making was being taught at schools level. SA Schools showed it is.
‘”Freedom of play” is the expression I use,’ says Sendin. ‘There are patterns and structures in place, but you also need to ensure these kids know how to play the situation in front of them in order to be creative. The coach’s job is to make sure the individuals are in a position to make a decision regarding when to stick to structures and when to go for it.’
This begs the question: What happens to players when they progress from schoolboy rugby to the professional ranks?
For now, though, the South African public is revelling in the sight of flyhalf Damian Willemse and wing Mike Mavovana in full flight, flank Muller Uys’s ability to attack space and offload in the tackle, centres Wandisile Simelane and Manie Rass breaking the line almost at will, the calmness shown by a leader like Moerat, and the ability of Lombard to flourish under the toughest circumstances.
Such is the depth of local talent that SA Schools A, coached by Paarl Boys’ Sean Erasmus, thumped England 53-14. And while they lost to Italy and Wales, several players showed they could easily have flourished in the premier side.
‘This series was arranged to help young players grow and develop in a national set-up,’ says Sendin. ‘And I believe our players in both sides matured mentally.’
Twelve of this year’s underachieving Junior Boks side are available for selection for the 2017 World Rugby U20 Championship, but they will face stiff competition from those players who were recently involved with SA Schools and SA Schools A.
‘There are a lot of them who can play at U20 level,’ says Sendin. ‘Keeping in mind they are only 18, some might go to the World Championship next year, others in two years’ time. But I expect many of them will make their mark.’