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SA rugby's great flaw: Failure to back youth

Opinion

JOHANNESBURG - The moment is now iconic.

It has New Zealand rugby great Jonah Lomu collect a wayward pass, flung haphazardly to the openside by scrumhalf Graeme Bachop, rounding the English wing Tony Underwood, beating captain Will Carling on the outside, stumbling but maintaining momentum, and then using Mike Catt as a trampoline to crash over the tryline.

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Curwin Bosch has been named in the Springbok Under-20 squad for the World Rugby U20 Championship. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

That try during the 1995 Rugby World Cup made Lomu a legend, the first superstar of the game, the new model of the modern player. It cemented his place in the lore of the game. He would dot down four tries in that game, helping the All Blacks demolish Ye Ol’ Enemy 45-29.

A week later Lomu would become the youngest rugby player to participate in a World Cup final at the age of 20 years and 43 days.

A year earlier, however, Lomu was on shaky ground. He had just made his debut against France at Lancaster Park, now AMI Stadium, in Christchurch, the All Black losing the encounter 22-8. A week later, in his second Test, the New Zealanders succumbed 23-20, also to the Tricolour.

Lomu, speaking to the New Zealand Herald, would years later recall: “What began as a day of great expectations (referring to his debut) for me turned into a disaster. The game was disappointing; the loss embarrassing.”

He would also admit that his inexperience in those games led to him being exposed by a wily French outfit.

By the time of the semi-final against England at Newlands in 1995, however, the youngster’s raw talent had been honed and forged in the fires of Test match rugby, a would be rugby-god made anew, standing atop the pinnacle, casting down thunderous runs of power and speed, while striking mortal men aside.

The New Zealanders then, under Laurie Mains' guidance, had noticed the prodigious talent of the man, calculated the drawbacks, settled on the positives, trusted their youth structures and their ability to manage Lomu the youngster, forging him into the rugby legend he would become.

That has always been one of the strengths of New Zealand rugby, especially after the dawn of the professional epoch - trust the young talent that is coming through the ranks, back them, train them, drill into them the necessary skills to make them the best in the world.

It is the reason why the likes of Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Malakai Fekitoa, Anton Lienert Brown, Rieko Ioane and Beauden Barrett, to name but a clutch-full, are racking up ridiculous numbers when it comes to Test played, even though the majority of them are hovering around the average age of 25.

All of them were giving opportunities in their early 20s, and in the case of Retallick, Ioane and Barrett, had barely escaped the angst of their teens when handed a Kiwi cap.

You’ll agree, that in this way, the All Blacks are always building to beyond the next World Cup. And that is one of the great failures of South African rugby, who ponderously roll on in an eight year cycle that must find new talent when the previous generation has been discarded; build experience anew; and then cling to a core group of players for a period beyond their most advantageous prime, only to enter a tumultuous chapter of panic and uncertainty thereafter.

It is the reason why noting Curwin Bosch’s name on the Springbok Under-20 squad to represent the country at the World Rugby U20 Championship, this past week, was so disappointing. It means the young man will, in all probability, be overlooked when the French visit these shores next month. That series would have been the perfect opportunity to cut the 19-year-old’s teeth at Test level, to teach him some new skills, and grant him a smidgen of experience that would stand him in good stead during this year’s continued Super Rugby and domestic season.

Moreover, his non-availability to Allister Coetzee, says much about the tone fans must prepare themselves for the upcoming series. With whispers that 32-year-old Bismarck du Plessis and veteran Frans Steyn are in the selection mix, it would seem that the France Inbound Tour will not be based on an expansive game plan, but rather grinding out a result to save Coetzee’s job, when we should be building towards Japan 2019 and beyond.

And so, in this way, the cycle continues.

The Star

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