At the time, the names of Kwagga Smith, Cheslin Kolbe, Warrick Gelant, Seabelo Senatla and Justin Geduld were foreign to overseas commentators of the now renamed HSBC SVNS circuit, but not for long as they would become part of a great Blitzboks generation, who won gold at the Commonwealth Games, back-to-back World Series titles and an Olympic bronze medal.
Smith, Kolbe and Senatla achieved their Olympic dream in 2016 with a podium finish in Rio before moving to the fifteens game, where more glory awaited.
Smith and Kolbe won back-to-back Rugby World Cups with the Springboks in 2019 and 2023. Gelant – himself a RWC winner in 2019 – and Senatla helped the DHL Stormers to the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship title, and Geduld was part of the DHL Western Province team that won the Currie Cup before focussing on sevens.
All five also played for the Junior Springboks earlier in their careers, which may have been a hint of things to come.
Fast forward 10 years later as two Junior Boks, Katlego Letebele and Quewin Nortje, fresh from a World Rugby U20 Championship bronze medal effort, walked into the Blitzbok set-up only to be welcomed by a third in Masande Mtshali, who already played sevens for South Africa at the age of 19.
“Seeing Masande here helped a lot, and he was really good in those early days to make us feel at home,” said Letebele from their Stellenbosch Academy of Sport base this week.
The Vodacom Bulls-signed centre was Junior Bok vice-captain in 2023, having also played for the team in 2022, but that “senior status” was lost when he joined the Blitzboks.
“One does feel nervous, but I have to commend everyone who welcomed us with open arms,” said Letebele. “The management also laid out a clear plan for us, so we could immediately focus on the rugby.”
Nortje was impressed by the fitness levels of the players when he joined the squad, also from the Vodacom Bulls.
“I have heard the stories about their fitness sessions and being a bit of a fitness freak, I thought that I would cope with that, but I was wrong,” smiled Nortje. “I went to a couple of those dark places, but the encouragement of the senior guys pulled me through.
“It is amazing, having admired guys like Siviwe (Soyizwapi), Justin (Geduld) and Rosko (Specman) as a schoolboy, now I was training alongside them. Justin and Rosko’s advice helped me so much, especially in the beginning.”
Where Letebele will play as a forward, Nortje’s pace will be utilised on the wing and he might just be named in place of injured Soyizwapi when coach Sandile Ngcobo announces his squad for Dubai on Friday.
“I am obviously hoping to be in contention for that Dubai squad,” said Nortje on Wednesday.
“I did play in the Fast Forward tournament in Stellenbosch a couple of weeks back and that went well, but the quality in this squad is huge. I will be on the edge of my seat.”
Letebele nodded his head when Nortje mentioned the “dark places” and added: “The skills, fitness and especially physicality of the guys surprised me. I have been tackled as hard as anywhere in a fifteens game for sure.
“These guys are really good and to play amongst them is such a huge opportunity for me to grow as a player. I did not play sevens at school, so I had to adapt quickly and being around these guys has made it so much easier.”
Other current squad members who also donned the Junior Bok jersey are David Brits (2017) and Zain Davids (2016/17). Brits will not be considered for Dubai as he is recovering from a shoulder strain, but with Davids a shoe-in, Letebele and Nortje could push the tally of former Junior Boks to the touring squad to five.
“It would be awesome to achieve what Cheslin, Kwagga and Warrick did, but that is something in the future. For now, if selected, I just want to give my all to the Blitzboks,” Letebele said, this time with Nortje nodding his approval.