Emirates Airline Park has played host to some epic encounters and on Sunday, the famous stadium in Doornfontein will provide another fascinating peak into the future of South African rugby when the 2020 SA Rugby Under-21 Championship kicks off in Johannesburg.
The five top provincial sides, boasting some of the finest young players in the country, will be in action in a round-robin tournament with the final set for 30 October at this illustrious venue. The full updated fixture list can be viewed here.
The tournament is the first to restart since the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the local season and a host of former Junior Springboks and SA Schools players of recent years will be in action, with all matches scheduled to be live streamed by SuperSport on their DSTV Now platform (channel 245).
SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, pointed to this competition as an important pipeline to the Springboks and much will be revealed in the next four weeks.
The tournament kicks off with a bang, with a highly anticipated match between defending champions, the Vodacom Blue Bulls and DHL Western Province, who were runners-up in last year’s competition.
In the second match of the day, the Toyota Free State will face the Xerox Lions, with the Cell C Sharks having a bye in the first of five rounds of play.
Vodacom Blue Bulls coach Hayden Groepes and his DHL Western Province counterpart, Jerome Paarwater, have selected some high-profile players in their match-day squads.
The team from Pretoria includes Stravino Jacobs (wing) and Jan-Hendrik Wessels (prop), both of whom featured for the Vodacom Bulls last weekend, as well as Junior Boks lock Janko Swanepoel in a match that could set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
Paarwater included Kade Wolhuter, who spent this week with the Springbok Green squad in Cape Town, and the leading try-scorer for the Blitzboks in 2020, Angelo Davids.
Wolhuter is amongst the replacements for the Green squad at DHL Newlands on Saturday and will also play off the bench on Sunday, but Davids, who made his DHL Stormers debut last weekend, will start on the wing for the Capetonians.
In the second match of the day, Toyota Free State coach Albert Keuris will be looking for a positive start to the competition.
The Bloem side had a good run last year and finished third on the log, only to lose out in the semi-finals. Good momentum will be key to determine the top two sides to play in the final at the end of the month.
The Free Staters will be without George Cronje, with the No 8 and former SA Schools player included in their senior squad, but Keuris has some serious strike power in wings Siyanda Cele and Janco van Heyningen, with the latter fresh from a stint with the SA Rugby Sevens Academy.
The Xerox Lions had a disappointing 2019 season, winning only four times in 10 matches, but new head coach, Mzwakhe Nkosi, has some serious depth in his squad, with a number of players who represented the Junior Springboks and some SA Schools stand-outs from last year.
Jurich Claassen (scrumhalf) and Henco van Wyk (centre) are amongst an exciting group of backs in the squad assembled by Nkosi, who coached the talented duo last year when he took charge of the SA Schools side.
The U21 fixtures for Sunday 3 October are:
DHL Western Province v Vodacom Blue Bulls
Referee: Griffin Colby
Toyota Free State v Xerox Lions
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron
Bye: Cell C Sharks