Baby Boks get bigger

GARETH DUNCAN, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says size matters when it comes to international U20 rugby.

The record speaks for itself. Between 1994 and 2007, South Africa claimed six titles at the U19 (1994, 2003 and 2005) and U21 (1999, 2002 and 2005) World Cups. However, since the inception of the U20 Junior World Championship in 2008, which replaced those two tournaments, the Baby Boks have failed to reach the final, winning the bronze medal on three occasions.

This is disappointing when you consider the huge junior player base and talent in South Africa, a luxury the more successful U20 teams, like three-time champions New Zealand, Australia and England, can’t match. When speaking to several former and current Baby Boks personnel, all give similar reasons for South Africa’s shortcomings at the U20 event, citing a lack of experience and proper preparation, and emotional frailties in pressure situations.

‘I’m not sure of all the reasons why the Baby Boks have struggled in recent years, but I can speculate that there are the same problems I experienced in 2006 when the team didn’t do so well,’ says former SA U19 coach Eugene Eloff. ‘The teams we faced at the tournament that season, like France, Wales and England, were bigger than us. Their forwards, some of whom weighed up to 120kg, dominated our pack. One of our biggest players in the 2006 squad was Frans Steyn, and he was a backline player.’

A key statistic that has been overlooked in previous seasons has been size. In the past three campaigns, the Baby Boks averaged 95.6kg (2008) and 95.9kg (2009 and 2010) per player, whereas New Zealand’s, Australia’s and England’s players have increased in size or remained bigger each year. According to the experts, this size advantage has been central in these countries’ success at the Junior World Champs.

This is an issue Baby Boks coach Dawie Theron has taken into consideration ahead of his first tournament in Italy. The 31-man SA U20 squad he took to Argentina in March averaged 98.6kg per player, which was an improvement, especially among the forwards. That number is likely to increase when other Super Rugby and Springbok Sevens players join the squad at a later stage.

‘Against Argentina, I noticed how size helped us as the players were bigger and in a better condition than before,’ says Theron. ‘Argentina are traditionally physical at the  breakdown and scrum because of their big forwards. But our pack managed to contest well and even dominated them at times. The increase in size will make us more competitive against New Zealand, Australia, England and France, who have always selected bigger players.’

However, Theron believes size shouldn’t be the main focus as ‘the system can’t deny opportunities to the future Gio Aplons’. In the ‘Small Wonders’ article published in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine, the writer points out that the law interpretations allow smaller players, like Aplon, to have a bigger impact in the modern game. However, Sports Science biokineticist Justin Durandt and Professor Mike Lambert, who have both consulted with the Baby Boks regularly since 1995 and have studied the development of South African rugby, don’t support this theory.

Durandt says: ‘It is scientifically proven that weight plays a big role in rugby. If you look at the Stormers’ win over the Bulls in Pretoria in March, you’ll see it was one of the few times the Stormers had a heavier pack.

‘However, size has a bigger influence at junior level than it does in senior rugby.This is because the junior boys are still developing and maturing, while the senior players have matured and have reached their optimal level. Some juniors also mature slower than others. The stronger nations at the U20 tournament have used this to their advantage by picking their bigger players, who aren’t always as talented but are physically superior.

‘In the past, the stronger nations would have a 10kg advantage per player on our juniors. This stat can also be misleading as it’s the squad’s weight averages that are recorded. In a match, this advantage could be even bigger, like 15-20kg, especially among the forwards. If the South African junior teams don’t have players who can match the bigger opposition, they will never win the Junior World Champs.’

Durandt counters Theron’s point that size shouldn’t be the main focus.

‘Some players take longer to reach their optimal level in terms of conditioning and strength. Aplon can cope at senior level now because he has matured and developed adequately, but he wasn’t as strong when he was a junior. A bigger U20 player will dominate a smaller U20 player in contact. If your team lacks size, it will struggle.’

Lambert says there are a several reasons why South African players are smaller.

‘There are a few interesting statistics that Justin and I have discovered,’ he says. ‘The players’ weight averages at the U18 Craven Week are increasing each year but this wasn’t the case with the Baby Boks. This highlights a selection issue.

‘White players also tend to be bigger and better conditioned than black players. But this isn’t a racial or genetic thing, it has more to do with the players’ socio-economic backgrounds.

‘Players from wealthier backgrounds have easier access to gym and top rugby schools and get the proper nutrition and conditioning at an earlier age than players from poorer homes. This is proven by the fact that black players from top rugby schools are bigger than the norm because they have gone through better development structures.

‘Saru has taken note of this and has sent several quality mobile gyms to poorer areas to try and rectify this issue. This will allow these players to have access to gyms earlier in their careers, and in turn, players from poorer areas will become bigger and stronger.’

Lambert also points out that the junior contractual system is problematic as players are signed by their respective unions, whereas other countries sign their players centrally. With the South African system, Saru relies on the provinces developing national juniors while other countries play a more hands-on role with their players’ development, growth and conditioning.

However, high performance manager Herman Masimla says Saru can’t adopt other international systems because of unique circumstances.

‘We can’t contract our players centrally just because it’s successful in New Zealand, Australia or England. Their junior structures and systems won’t suit us because of our bigger player base.

‘Our relationships with the unions have always been good but there are times when communication regarding certain players’ progress is a problem. In order to improve this, we will be sending Saru officials and conditioning coaches to each region to oversee each player’s development.’

Masimla admits that experience, and not only size, has been a problem for the Baby Boks and says Saru is rectifying these issues.

‘We take our junior rugby very seriously as these players coming through the system are our future Springboks. So we need to ensure they are world-class players.

‘We’ve acknowledged that a lack of experience and size has hampered the Baby Boks’ performances at the Junior World Championship, but we have systems in place to sort out these issues. Some of these implementations, like the mobile gyms, have taken a while because of financial constraints while other solutions are still being discussed, like the possibility of playing an U20 Tri-Nations or Four Nations tournament.

‘The national high performance programmes for U16s and U18s help a great deal in the players’ development. At these workshops, we also have a host of former players and top coaches helping out on a consulting basis. We also give out booklets at the national U16 and U18 tournaments, which give players information on proper gyming and nutrition. That should improve their conditioning and help them become bigger and stronger.

‘In terms of experience, European teams benefit from playing in the U20 Six Nations, while New Zealand and Australia’s U20 players feature in Super Rugby. They have this luxury because their player base isn’t as big as ours.

‘For a number of years we have been encouraging the unions to give their youngsters more senior opportunities. It’s been good to see it happening this season. An immediate solution could see a Baby Boks team in the Vodacom Cup or Varsity Cup, while we will continue to organise more international warm-ups.’

Masimla believes the Baby Boks will become one of the strongest U20 entities with time.

‘What we are very happy with is our player development blueprint. Our junior teams form the foundation of South African rugby and they will go through the ranks and work their way into Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Springbok teams.

‘There are also windows that allow other talented players to enter the system at a later stage if they weren’t identified at junior level. We understand that some players mature slower than others.

‘I believe the Baby Boks will have a strong campaign at the Junior World Champs this season. But with these structures and systems coming along well, we will be even better at future tournaments.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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