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Overreaction to Baby Boks defeat needs perspective

By Daniel Gallan
Italy celebrate winning during the World Rugby U20 Championship 2023. (Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

On Thursday, the South African U20 ‘Baby Boks’ lost in the mud and sludge to their Italian counterparts in Paarl by a score of 34-26. That is where unobjectionable truth ends. From here it’s all speculation and perspective. How you interpret the result says more about your own outlook than the true state of world rugby.


And, if you’re South African at least, there are two distinct camps in which to hitch your tent.

You can either lament the loss, one of six humiliating defeats for the southern hemisphere against their rivals in the north on the same day. France stuffed New Zealand. Ireland blitzed Australia. England trounced Fiji. Georgia swept Argentina.

To a hammer everything looks like a nail and to a southern pessimist who has long bemoaned the shifting plates in the global game, one where the planet’s axis seems to tilt towards Europe and enact a gravitational pull on African and Oceanic talent, this is merely exhibit number 275 of an ecosystem out of whack.

The Baby Boks were poor. They were out scrummed, outmuscled, outthought and outmanoeuvred by an Italian outfit that would have hurdled Table Mountain and bench pressed Robben Island if required after their captain, David Odiase, gave one of the all-time great pre match speeches that made Mel Gibson’s address in Braveheart seem trite.

The Italians looked better coached and better prepared. Which, of course, they were, having finished third in this year’s Six Nations U20 Championship. There is no shame in losing to this group who are the benefactors of a reorganised and focussed youth programme in Italian rugby that has already started bearing fruit at the elite level.

Still, South African rugby is in part fuelled by hubris and the mythology doesn’t allow for such setbacks. Under a Twitter post from the Junior Springboks – to give them their official name – some comments below the line were absolutely frothing. “Shocking”, “disgusting”, “horrible”, decried a few angry fans.


One called it “embarrassing”. Others blamed “politics” and “transformation targets” – not so thinly veiled digs that have long been dog whistles for racists in the country. Another said that this was the final straw and that he would no longer watch or support South Africa rugby.

Let’s all take a deep breath together. In. Out. Right. Here is what this result looks like from a different vantage point.

It doesn’t matter. Not really. Not in the hyperbolic, over-the-top, uber-sensationalistic way that many would have you believe. Sport is the most important of the least important things, but that’s only applicable at the upper echelons of the pyramid.

These are kids. If they were American they wouldn’t be allowed to drink alcohol legally. If they were South Korean they wouldn’t be allowed to vote. Most of them probably live with their parents. None of them have fully developed brains yet.


Almost all of them have at least trained with their senior provincial sides. Scrum-half Imad Khan has seven minutes of URC rugby under his belt after coming on as a late substitute for the Stormers against Glasgow in January. But none of them are bonafide professionals. Treating them with anything other than kid gloves is a gross distortion of what they are.

It would be a shame if the U20 Championship loses a degree of innocence. There is already so much nastiness in our game. Referees are abused to the point they no longer want to be involved. School children feel compelled to dope due to the pressures they face from a young age. Clubs that were founded more than a century ago are going to the wall due to maladministration. Retired players at all levels are dealing with degenerative brain diseases and sending out distressing warnings to future generations who are turning away from the egg shaped ball.

Let us not heap more hurt and hate on young people who are getting their first taste of what it means to represent their country. Should they retain their enthusiasm and abilities they’ll soon walk through the gauntlet as public figures in an intensely critical world. Why accelerate them on that path when they’re still dealing with acne and the pitfalls of a high school heartbreak? Are we so desperate for narrative, for civic pride?

Besides, success or failure in these tournaments does not guarantee success or failure where it truly matters. Only three players from the victorious Baby Boks in 2012 – Handre Pollard, Pieter Steph du Toit and Steven Kitsoff – went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup seven years later. Future senior Boks such as Marvin Orie and Raymond Rhule were in the mix, but so too were Patrick Howard, Tony Jantjies and Maks van Dyk – all professionals, but not exactly household names.

There are so many moving parts in rugby. So many variables that each impact on each other. A change in coach here, an injury there, a positional shift somewhere else and a different team from a different hemisphere lifts the World Cup a decade down the road. It’s what makes elite sport so much fun and why so many long reads are committed to a player’s backstory.

But perhaps this is a changing of the guard. Maybe we are on the cusp of a new age. Would that be an entirely terrible thing? Only four teams have won the World Cup from the 25 that have entered. We could do with some diversity, and a little youthful innocence where possible.


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