Nick Cain: Bully-boy forwards win it for the Springboks

Steven Kitskoff The England U20s should be green with envy following South Africa’s 22-16 World Junior Championship final victory over New Zealand in Cape Town on Friday evening, bringing to an end the four year Kiwi reign as the best U20 side on the planet. The Baby Boks victory was fully deserved as they were the better side, living up to the expectations of the 33,000 home fans – by far the biggest gate the final has attracted – who cheered them on at Newlands.
However, Rob Hunter’s England side, who secured a lowly seventh place with a 17-13 win over Australia, should be kicking themselves for blowing the four-try cushion they had when they met South Africa two rounds earlier, allowing the home side to progress to the final stages at their expense.
England underperformed, and were a more accomplished side than their final placing indicated, but, they paid a heavy price for getting their strategy against the Baby Boks hopelessly wrong, and were overwhelmed in the second-half with the host nation getting their precious bonus point win.
South Africa also had Wales to thank for shattering New Zealand’s shield of invincibility with their 6-3 win in the Stellenbosch mud, the first defeat they had suffered since the U20 tournament began in 2008. Nor should we overlook that England came very close to ending New Zealand’s run in Italy last year, but, unlike the current crop of Red Rose sides, when the South Africans got the scent of victory there was no stopping them.
The Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s message that South Africa should not only go back to their heritage of big, fast, powerful, bully-boy forwards, but be proud to do so, seems to have resonated with the Baby Bok coaches Dawie Theron and Brendan Venter.
The South Africans dismantled the New Zealand pack at Newlands, and their main weapon was the driving maul built around their formidable front five of Steven Kitshoff, Mark Pretorius, Nicolaas Van Dyk, Paul Willemse and Ruan Botha. They used it expertly, with their squat hooker, Pretorius, able to tuck in behind the advancing phalanx of olive green jerseys time and again, with the smaller NZ forwards powerless to prevent them making good yardage. They eventually resorted to collapsing the SA driving mauls deliberately, conceding penalties as well as territory and possession, of which the home side enjoyed 60 per cent.
It is rare that you see a New Zealand team stumped for answers, but they were out-thought in Cape Town by a South African outfit using a straightforward tactic in which England used to have an expertise second to none. However, while English forwards, whether senior or U20, seem incapable of re-discovering their mauling heritage, it won the Baby Boks their first World Junior Championship title.
The maul is an essential part of this sport, especially because it ties forwards into the forward contest rather than leaving them at liberty to fan out and clutter the field. However, I am not a supporter of the current law which allows a player to adopt the ‘truck and trailer’ role filled by the likes of Pretorius, and Neil Back before him, because he is untouchable as long the players in the formation in front of him stay on their feet and drive straight.
It would be an infinitely fairer contest if, as used to happen, the ball had to be held at the front of the maul, with the carrier, or those supporting him, in contact with the opposition. This at least gave the defending side a chance to get at the carrier and wrestle or rip the ball off him.
Nevertheless, you can only play the laws as they are framed at the moment, and all credit to South Africa for making the most of the mauling opportunity available to them, even if it is a blatant form of obstruction.
A last observation on this final is reserved for the referee, England’s Greg Garner. His decision to send off Springbok lock Willemse for hair-pulling, and braided New Zealand prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi for retaliating with a punch was pure nanny-state officiating, and completely disproportionate.
Yellow cards were all that was required, at most, to punish the miscreants in what was a niggly exchange rather than a nasty one, yet Garner was not going to go quietly into the Cape Town night. Instead, he took centre stage, almost gleefully brandishing his red card.
It’s time that international match officials were reminded forcibly that the best refs are those who no-one notices.

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