Junior Springbok coach Bafana Nhleko praised the strides made by the SA Rugby Academy players on Thursday as they wrapped up the training phase of the programme with a series of chukkas against DHL Western Province in Stellenbosch.
The chukkas followed training sessions against the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Blue Bulls U20s on Tuesday.
During the next phase of the Academy – which kicks off on Sunday, 6 June – the players will transition into game mode as the U20 International Series moves closer.
The tournament, which features the Junior Boks against the U20 teams from Argentina, Georgia and Uruguay, will be hosted at the Markötter Stadium in Stellenbosch from Friday, 18 June, to Saturday, 3 July.
“What we needed more than anything else was the contact time, and it has been good for us,” said Nhleko.
“We are very grateful that we could get on the field. What we probably missed out on was an 80-minute stretch of a game, but we are quite happy with where the players are.
“The chukkas were important for two reasons: firstly the bodies needed to take contact, and secondly, we needed to test our systems.
“The biggest improvements have probably been in the players’ skillset and how they adapted to the intensity and level of play we are looking for. There was also some good inter-passing and linkage, and defensively a lot of the boys have made a massive step-up.
“But we still need to improve our set pieces and general attack. Clarity in our kicking detail is also something we will fix when we reconvene.”
Commenting on the progress made since early April, which involved limited contact training due to the COVID-19 return-to-play protocols, Nhleko said: “If you consider that most of these guys have not played rugby in 18 months, I am very pleased with how hard they worked in terms of their conditioning.
“All credit to our strength and conditioning and medical teams for keeping the players on the field and getting them into this shape.”
With the U20 International Series looming large, Nhleko said stringing everything they have worked on in the last few weeks into quality match performances would be the key as they switch into game mode.
“It’s going to be of great benefit to finally have everyone together. It has been challenging not to be able to train with the whole group,” he said.
“We are taking a short break, and in the meantime, the players will be told what they have to work on from a coaching and strength and conditioning perspective.
“When we reassemble it will be about putting our systems in place because we want to be ready for the matches. We have worked hard on our skills and fundamentals, and we now need to put all of it together so that we get game ready. The big thing for us is to put together an 80-minute performance.”
The Junior Boks will begin their U20 International Series campaign against Uruguay on Friday, 18 June, and will line up against Argentina on Wednesday, 23 June, and Georgia on Monday, 28 June.
The other fixtures in the first three rounds of play will see Georgia being pitted against Argentina, Uruguay taking on Georgia, and Argentina battling it out with Uruguay respectively.
The teams will receive four log points for a win, two points for a draw, and a bonus point for scoring four tries or more or suffering a defeat by seven less points or less.
The series will culminate in a thrilling closing round with the top two ranked teams and bottom two sides respectively meeting on Saturday, 3 July.