Preview: Springboks vs France (1st Test)

The Springboks have to front at the gainline against France this Saturday if they are to avoid a fifth straight Test defeat, writes JON CARDINELLI in Pretoria.

It’s a game the Boks should win, yet a game they could well lose. Indeed, how many times did we predict a win for the Boks in 2016 only to be surprised by their substandard physical performance and an unlikely result?

The Boks losing to Ireland at home and Argentina away? We thought it couldn’t happen. The Boks leaking nine tries and 57 points at home against the All Blacks? We thought it shouldn’t happen. The Boks losing to Italy for the first time? We thought it was impossible.

The losses to Ireland and Argentina happened. The record defeat to the All Blacks will never be forgotten, and the same applies to a shock loss to the Azzurri.

The nightmare was real. It can't be wished away.

The Boks have talked a big game in the lead-up to the first Test against France. The talk has generated some positivity and confidence within the squad, and among the South African rugby fans.

But should a Bok win against France this weekend be expected? Or do we need to accept that with standards as low as they are in South African rugby, and with coach Allister Coetzee dead set on gambling on inexperienced and inferior players there is no such thing as a sure bet?

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A defeat to France at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday will extend this Bok team’s losing streak to five. The Boks haven’t lost five consecutive Tests since 2006.

There’s even more at stake when one considers the three-Test series as a whole. The Boks haven’t lost a Test series at home since 1997, and haven’t lost a series to France since 1993.

Coetzee’s side should be encouraged by South Africa’s record against France at the Pretoria stronghold. Overall, France have won six, drawn five and lost 10 on South African soil. While France have never lost at Ellis Park (in four Tests), they have never won at Loftus (in two).

The Boks should be desperate to win on Saturday and take a 1-0 lead in the three-game series. Whether France will have the same desire to succeed at Loftus, remains to be seen.

The French are coming off an especially taxing domestic season that began in August last year and concluded just this past Sunday. None of the players who featured for Clermont and Toulon in the recent Top 14 final – namely Xavier Chiocci (Toulon), Guilhem Guirado (Toulon), Arthur Iturria (Clermont), Romain Taofifenua (Toulon), Camille Lopez (Clermont), and Damian Penaud (Clermont) –  have been selected for the first Test at Loftus.

In theory, the Boks should be favourites to beat a tired France side that is missing several first-choice players. This should present South Africa with a great opportunity to end their losing run and start the season on a positive note – at least as far as results are concerned.

Yet, after reflecting on some truly embarrassing physical performances and results in 2016, and after receiving confirmation that the Boks will head into the first game of 2017 with an inexperienced lineup that is short on abrasive and tactically astute players, one is reluctant to make a prediction with any certainty.

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The Boks may have the edge at the set pieces. Whether they are able to dominate France – who shared top spot with South Africa for set-piece accuracy and stability in 2016 – remains to be seen.

There’s been a lot of talk about attacking out wide, but in truth the Boks may be looking to their lineout maul to provide some momentum. That said, as assistant coach Johann van Graan admitted earlier this week, France have defended the maul well in recent times.

In the injury-enforced absence of Duane Vermeulen, who is going to lead the physical charge for the Boks? Oupa Mohoje is a very different sort of player to Vermeulen. Mohoje will give the Boks a strong option at the lineout, but won’t offer the same stopping power as Vermeulen on defence.

Siya Kolisi and Warren Whiteley are two more players better suited to carrying in the wider channels than in the area round the fringes. No player in the starting back row is particularly good at playing towards the ball. It will be interesting to see how long Coetzee persists with this combination before deploying Jean Luc-du Preez, a strong ball-carrier, defender and breakdown exponent, from the bench.

France boast a dangerous ball-carrier in No 8 Louis Picamoles. Big backs such as No 12 Gaël Fickou and wingers Virimi Vakatawa and Yoann Huget will test the defence of the Bok backline. Coetzee has backed the uncapped Ross Cronjé as well as the defensively frail Elton Jantjies in the halfback positions, and Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel in the midfield.

Frans Steyn will warm the bench for the Boks. On Thursday, Coetzee extolled the virtues of Steyn, a World Cup-winner who boasts the complete skill-set. The Bok coach didn’t appear to have an explanation why the only world-class back in the matchday squad was not part of the starting XV.

It’s a decision that may backfire. Steyn should be deployed at some stage in the second half. By then, the opportunity to sink long-range goals may have passed, and the Boks may be chasing the game.

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The selection of three rookies in the back three, and another uncapped outside back on the bench, is an unnecessary gamble by Coetzee. It will be interesting to see how France respond.

France coach Guy Novès has paired a young flyhalf in Jules Plisson with an experienced scrumhalf in Maxime Machenaud. The France halfbacks may look to target the untried Courtnall Skosan, Raymond Rhule and Andries Coetzee with a series of high balls. Expect to see those big backs of France competing strongly in the air to regain possession ala the All Blacks.

France’s ability to maintain a strong physical effort over an 80-minute period will be under scrutiny, though. They’re coming off a long season in Europe, and may not be able to go the distance with a fresher Bok side with a point to prove.

Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.

France – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Loann Goujon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Yoann Maestri (c), 4 Julien le Devedec, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Clément Maynadier, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Kévin Gourdon, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Vincent Rattez.

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Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli