Junior Springboks star Simelane looks back on 'fantastic' U20 Championship

Wandisile Simelane stepped up to be the Junior Springboks' vice-captain at the World Rugby U20 Championship following Damian Willemse' injury-enforced departure Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

Junior Springboks centre Wandisile Simelane wasn't as widely spoken about as some of his teammates ahead of the World Rugby U20 Championship but emerged with more credit than most.

The 20-year-old centre left France with the honour of being the joint top try-scorer with six tries, which included one in the 40-30 win over New Zealand which sealed the 'baby' Boks' bronze medal.

"It was a fantastic tournament," said Simelane, who scored a hat-trick in the team's second pool match against Ireland.

"We came all the way to France as 20-year-olds, and we were based in a very small town called Gruissan. This experience allowed us to learn about different cultures and meet new people, even though the language barrier was a challenge.

"From a rugby perspective, this a mentally and physically demanding competition. There are only four days in between games, so it asks a lot of the players. But it was a great experience for me and the team."

Johannesburg-born and raised Simelane arrived in France as just 'one of the boys', and having to play at leftwing rather than his preferred outside centre, but ended it in a leadership role and with the number 13 on his back.

Of being handed the vice-captaincy after Damian Willemse was ruled out because of injury, Simelane said: "It was easy because everyone played their part, so it was a fantastic experience. This was the first or second time that I took up a leadership role in a national team [he played SA Under-18 in 2015 and SA Schools in 2016], and it motivated me to bring that 5% extra every time I had the opportunity to do so."

Ultimately, the Junior Springboks didn't achieve the goal they set themselves pre-tournament. However, they put their narrow semifinal defeat to England behind them by finishing on a winning note against New Zealand.

"It was awesome to finish the competition on a high note," said Simelane in an SA Rugby media release.

"We lost by one point to a very good England team in the semifinal, which was heart-breaking and very disappointing for us. But to bounce back and beat a very good and motivated New Zealand team was fantastic."

Looking forward, Simelane -- a Jeppe Boys' graduate who attends and plays for Wits University and the Golden Lions U-20 -- said he hoped to meet up with his Junior Springboks teammates in a few years and look back at their experience in France after building a brotherhood since their preparation began in February.

"The bonds we created as a group were very special," said Simelane.

"We got closer as a group in the five months we were together, and one could see how we grew together as a squad. It will be nice to catch up in a few years and talk about our experience in Gruissan."