Shortly after the Six Nations U20 Championship dates were unveiled, the international age-grade player development pathway received a further boost with the news that a four-team series based in South Africa will also take place in June and July.
The Junior Springboks will host Argentina’s Los Pumitas and Georgia’s Junior Lelos, familiar opponents of theirs from recent World Rugby U20 Championships and assorted friendlies, while Uruguay’s Los Teritos complete the line-up.
Like the 2021 Six Nations U20 competition, which runs from 19 June-13 July in Cardiff, the international series will also be played in one venue – the Markötter Stadium in Stellenbosch, starting next month.
The inclusion of Georgia in the tournament will mark a memorable occasion for the union as their junior and senior sides will be in the country, with the Springboks meeting Georgia in back-to-back tests on the first two weekends of July.
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In the first round of three on Friday, 18 June, Georgia face Argentina and the Junior Springboks begin their campaign against Uruguay.
The second round takes place five days later, on Wednesday, 23 June, and pits Uruguay with Georgia and South Africa with Argentina.
The latter fixture will revive memories of the Junior Springboks’ 35-3 semi-final win over Los Pumitas in 2012, the year they went on to lift the World Rugby U20 Championship trophy for the first and only time in their history.
The third and final round sees South Africa up against Georgia in a repeat of their pool encounter at the World Rugby U20 Championship 2019, while the final match of the round-robin stage is an all-South American affair with Uruguay up against Argentina.
The teams will receive four points for a win, two points for a draw, and a bonus point for scoring four tries or more or suffering a defeat by seven points or less.
The series will culminate in a thrilling closing round with the top two ranked teams and bottom two sides, respectively, meeting on Saturday, 3 July.
“We are delighted to be able to host the U20 International Series and to finally see the SA U20 players return to the field in the green and gold for the first time since the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2019,” said SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux.
“It has been a tough and challenging time for the players with junior competitions worldwide being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we share in their excitement to have this fantastic opportunity to showcase their skills against quality international teams.
“I would like to extend our sincere gratitude to World Rugby for making this series possible, as international competition at this level is invaluable in terms of player development.”
Several players from South Africa’s 2012 World Rugby U20 Championship triumph have gone on to enjoy stellar careers, using the experiences they learned as young players to bridge the gap when they step up to senior level.
The mastermind of their 2012 title win, fly-half Handre Pollard, is one of 48 South African players in total to have benefitted from the established pathway, going on to win Rugby World Cup 2019, and centre Jan Serfontein is another.
World Rugby U20 Championship and U20 Trophy graduates are to be found far and wide, in the leading club and international competitions, and Pollard, Serfontein and another member of the class of 2012, France second-row, Paul Willemse, won the European Challenge Cup together at Twickenham on Friday in the colours of Montpellier.
Argentina is no different to South Africa in this regard. In fact, their total of 73 U20 Championship graduates is only bettered by reigning champions France, while Georgia and Uruguay’s improved standing in test rugby is down to many of the leading lights of their U20 programme coming through and making a positive impression at senior level.
The enforced cancellation of the last two editions of the World Rugby U20 Championship because of COVID-19 threatened to leave a big hole in the player development pathway. But with the international series in South Africa taking place around the same time as the 2021 Six Nations U20 Championship, young players from as many as 10 countries will get the chance to put their skills to the test against their peers from around the world in June and July.
“With rugby tournaments affected by the ongoing pandemic all around the world, the organisation of the Under-20 International Series in South Africa provides a welcomed boost to junior teams involved and we look forward to having them back in action in June,” said World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont.
“The U20 pathway has proven very successful in raising competitiveness and standards worldwide and we are confident it will continue to deliver the future stars of our game.”
Hard work rewarded
Bafana Nhleko was equally thrilled to see the Junior Springboks return to action in what will mark his first stint in the head coach role. “It’s great news that we can get international fixtures in such trying times and we are thankful to all who have made it possible,” he said.
“I’m happy for the boys that they have this opportunity and it is a great reward for their hard work. They know how lucky they are to receive this chance because last year a very talented group of players missed out on U20 international rugby.”
Nhleko added: “The U20 programme is an important step in the player pathway systems across the world. We are responsible for developing the players for the future, and the players and coaches understand the expectation to perform.
“Argentina and Georgia have proven to be tough opposition in the last few years, and we expect the same test from a set-piece, physicality and skills perspective. The little we have seen of Uruguay is their quick play and breakdown contest.
“We are looking forward to the privilege of being back on the field.”