Junior Springbok head coach Bafana Nhleko praised his South African U20 squad’s effort on Friday when they outplayed England to win the bronze final of the 2023 World Rugby U20 Championships, with France taking the title for a third successive time by beating Ireland in the final.
The 22-15 win at Athlone Stadium earned them a place on the podium and gave the squad some reward for their efforts before and during the tournament.
“Obviously this is not the final we wanted to play, we wanted to win the tournament, but the response from Paul (de Villiers, the captain), the squad and management team was brilliant,” said Nhleko.
“We were very disappointed after the Ireland match, but credit to the players for the way they fronted up and fought today. The win was good reward for the fighting spirit they demonstrated throughout the tournament.
“For the players to be able to touch the medal and have it hanging around their necks will give them real belief that the hard work was not for nothing.”
Nhleko said the defensive effort against England was proof of the players’ determination and character to finish the tournament on a high.
“This was an important game for us as we wanted to leave a mark for this particular group,” said Nhleko.
“The big thing we all saw today was the character of this group and that is a very pleasing aspect for us to witness. They grew stronger after every match we played and we left the tournament with our heads held high.”
Nhleko said they will have time to review and reflect on the campaign, which he saw as a success: “There is more than one aspect to this tournament. We also want to develop this group as part of the bigger pathway for the Springboks and I am confident that we made good progress in that regard.
“The programme is holistic in that it covers rugby, analysis, individual work-ons, strength and conditioning, academics, and off-field support. The players showed improvement in every aspect, and I would like to commend the management team under the guidance of Barry McDonald and Louis Koen for their stellar work.”
Nhleko thanked the supporters who came out to watch the team play in Stellenbosch, Paarl and Athlone: “The energy the team got from the crowd everywhere was outstanding and we want to thank everyone who showed their support to the team. It was something the team will remember fondly.”
Jean Smith finished the tournament as the leading points’ scorer for the Junior Boks, with 36 points (nine conversions and six penalty goals) and Juann Else and Corné Beets as top try-scorers with three apiece.