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More than a game: Junior Springbok holds back tears in emotional interview

By Finn Morton
JF van Heerden of South Africa U18 during the U18 International Series match between South Africa and England at Paarl Gimnasium on August 19, 2022 in Paarl, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

As captain Siya Kolisi and the rest of the world champion Springboks paraded the Webb Ellis Cup through the streets of South Africa last November, everyone could see just how much rugby meant to the Rainbow Nation.

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It’s a sporting cliché to say that rugby is ‘more than a game’ but when talking about South Africa, no sentence or phrase seems more fitting when describing the beauty, impact and success of rugby union.

Throughout last year’s Rugby World Cup in France, it had been a running narrative that the Springboks were playing for more than just themselves whenever they stepped on the field. There seemed to be a greater meaning behind ‘why’ they put their bodies on the line.

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JF van Heerden emotional after South Africa’s loss | TRC U20

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JF van Heerden emotional after South Africa’s loss | TRC U20

Time and time again, the Blitzboks have shared a similar message during their turbulent SVNS Series campaign in 2023/24. Just last week in Singapore, Dylan Sage said the team “never take it for granted” after scoring the match-winner against France.

This theme has once again been brought to light during the inaugural Rugby Championship U20 on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Junior Springboks vice-captain JF van Heerden held back tears earlier this week after being asked about what it means to play for South Africa.

Heerden, 20, had just walked off the field and up the tunnel at Sunshine Coast Stadium after South Africa’s 24-19 defeat to tournament hosts Australia.

“I mean, where do you start? It’s a dream that you have from being a young boy,” told RugbyPass. “I think that’s a disappointment but it’s a rugby game.

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“But yeah, definitely tough the message we sent back to South Africa.

“It’s a massive honour.”

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The Junior Springboks struggled early on against the Junior Wallabies on Tuesday. Australia dominated territory and possession but on the back of their own mistakes and shortcomings, failed to turn their attacking pressure into points.

Mbasa Maqubela was sent off in the 19th minute for a high shot which saw the Boks go down to 14 men for the next 20 minutes, and that proved to be a pivotal moment in the match.

Cullen Gray kicked the first point of the night in the 28th minute to give Australia a 3-nil lead, but vice-captain van Heerden hit back for the South Africans on the back of a spirited attacking effort from the depleted side.

Australia ended up having the final say before the half, though, with fullback Shane Wilcox scoring the last try of the half. Wilcox was back on the scoresheet for a second time later in the contest as the hosts ran away to take a 24-14 lead.

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The Junior Springboks had the final say with Litelihle Bester scoring with only a few minutes left to play, but it was too late for the South Africans who remain winless after two matches in The Rugby Championship U20.

“I think we had to look ourselves in the eyes a bit. The mood isn’t great in there,” van Heerden said.

“I know the guys will bounce back from this and we’ll regroup and come back better on Sunday.

“I think we brought it to them physicality… (but) without set-piece, without possession, territory, you’re going to struggle to win Test matches.

“It’s definitely something we have to go back and review.”

South Africa will look to finish their campaign on a high note when they take on an impressive Argentina outfit on Sunday evening. Van Heerden will start as one of two vice-captains once again.

South Africa U20 to take on Argentina U20

  1. Ruan Swart
  2. Juan Smal
  3. Zachary Porthen (c)
  4. Thomas Dyer
  5. JF van Heerden (vc)
  6. Sibabalwe Mahashe
  7. Bathobele Hlekani
  8. Tiaan Jacobs
  9. Ezekiel Ngobeni
  10. Philip-Albert van Niekerk
  11. Litelihle Bester
  12. Joshua Boulle
  13. Jurenzo Julius (vc)
  14. Joel Leotlela
  15. Bruce Sherwood

Replacements:

  1. Ethan Bester
  2. Liyeme Ntshanga
  3. Casper Badenhorst
  4. Thabang Mphafi
  5. Divan Fuller
  6. Asad Moos
  7. Thurlon Williams
  8. JC Mars
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