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New Zealand U20 set to tackle South Africa in Sunshine Coast opener

New Zealand U20 set to tackle South Africa in Sunshine Coast opener

All BlacksMay 2, 2024

Playing South Africa first in the inaugural Rugby Championship Under-20 competition on the Sunshine Coast on Thursday will be a formidable scene setter for the New Zealand side.

Jono Gibbes, the former All Black, has returned to New Zealand to coach the side that has struggled in recent years to make an impact at the annual World Rugby Under-20 championship.

The game would be a typical New Zealand-South Africa contest. New Zealand would be looking for at least parity upfront.

"We have to make sure we win that forward battle. That set piece stuff is going to be the rock for us."

Gibbes said that as a new side, they were aware that things would not be perfect from the start and that combinations might not gel, but he was looking for how the players reacted when something didn't go right.

"We have to stay tight and solve a problem together. That is going to be the key for me."

Gibbes was pleased with how quickly the group has learned since coming together. They faced a concentration of long meetings to discuss a lot of information, but he had connected and stayed focused.

"We threw a lot at them, but they've responded positively so that bodes well the deeper we get into this campaign."

There was a good mix of past and younger players having their first experience at the Under-20s international level.

Having the Rugby Championship sides put their Under-20s teams into a tournament before their world championship was a boost. It also allowed them to get as much as possible out of their three games to prepare for their world tournament.

Team for round one is locked in 🔒

📅 Thursday 2 May
⏰ 7pm (NZT)
📺 Live on @SkySportNZ#NZU20s pic.twitter.com/lq1EoCIHYK

— New Zealand Rugby (@NZRugby) April 30, 2024

"That's the responsibility of this team because some of those other teams never got this opportunity."

Captain Vernon Bason said he was grateful for the opportunity to play for and lead the Under-20s. Tongan-born, he came to New Zealand when he was three, living in Palmerston North first but then moving with his parents to a lifestyle block near Wanganui.

He came through the Manawatu rugby system while attending Feilding High School, following in the footsteps of the Whitelock family and Aaron Smith.

Knowing those players had reached the All Blacks was a reminder of the possibilities that could happen for anyone if they worked hard. He said the teachers said Sam Whitelock, the All Blacks' most capped player, had worked hard, which was reflected in his career longevity.

Bason said Smith, the most capped All Blacks halfback, often popped into the school while he was there and was always keen to help, which he would remember later in his career.

He has been part of the Hurricanes system, mainly during pre-season, and has enjoyed working alongside players like Asafo Aumua and Brad Shields.

Playing South Africa first in the tournament would be a good test, given the rivalry between the two nations at whatever level they play.

"It will be defined by who's ready to bring the physical battle. We know it's a game they'll turn up for and likewise for us. It's a game we'll turn up for."

They were aware of the size of the South African players as all the teams share the same accommodation. But it was a case of still getting to know each other while battling on the field.

The involvement of the Rugby Championship nations in such a tournament was a good initiative because the players who were in the tournament last year could see the benefit the players from the Six Nations had from their warm-up tournament.

Gibbes said the Northern Hemisphere sides play differently, and what they do without the ball is also different. South Africa's defence is different from that in New Zealand, so the players would be exposed to a new system.

"This tournament helps us to analyse, evolve and adjust and get prepared for Cape Town. These games are massive and they're an important part of the development of these young guys."

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