The Springboks’ chances of progress in the second Test against France will hinge on several personnel changes, writes JON CARDINELLI.
One could understand the emotional reaction from the Bok players, coaches and fans at Loftus Versfeld this past Saturday. It’s been too long – eight months and four Tests in fact – since the Boks last won a match.
South African rugby desperately needed this result in the wake of a 2016 Test season that witnessed a record eight defeats. A win at Loftus was always going to be viewed as significant.
The result, of course, needs to be viewed in context. The Boks beat the sixth-ranked team in world rugby. What’s more, France went into the game without a host of stars. None of the players who featured for Toulon and Clermont in the recent Top 14 final were considered for the first Test in Pretoria.
These are the facts that one has to bear in mind before making any definitive statements about the Boks' progress and potential. To say that South Africa have turned a corner or regained some pride after a single win against a weakened and disjointed French side is grossly premature.
Indeed, analysis and reflection is needed now more than ever. The good teams learn as much from their victories as they do from their defeats. A single result shouldn’t be held up as evidence that everything in the Bok team is running smoothly, or that every individual deserves to be retained in the starting side.
The match stats reveal that Allister Coetzee may have indeed got several of his selections wrong for this game. The good coaches learn as much from their wins as they do from their losses. It remains to be seen if Coetzee will heed the lessons from Loftus in preparing for a more tactically and physically challenging clash at Kings Park.
France coach Guy Novès went as far as to describe the Boks as dominant at the collisions and breakdowns in the first Test. Subsequently, Coetzee praised his charges for their attitude and determination on defence. These are fair comments, but don’t necessarily apply to each and every player.
What the stats do indicate is that the Boks are trying to make a tactical shift. The hosts made 78 more tackles than France (178 to 100). They missed 36 tackles, though, and finished the game with a mediocre 85% tackle-completion rate.
How did the individuals fare in this department? Jan Serfontein had his hands full in the No 12 channel, making 18 tackles and missing four. Eben Etzebeth was outstanding at close quarters, completing 17 of his 18 attempts.
The Boks were breached regularly, and all too easily, in the wider channels on Saturday. Raymond Rhule’s tackle count of 12 may suggest that he had a decent game. However, what that number shows is how often the debutant winger was targeted by the French attack.
According to the in-depth stats on alloutrugby.com, Rhule made just one dominant hit over the course of the game. The Bok back three as a collective – devoid of any Test experience prior to the game at Loftus – battled to cope with France’s kicking game, as well as the powerful carrying of hulking wingers like Virimi Vakatawa and Yoann Huget. Easy metres were conceded time and again in those wide channels.
Afterwards, Coetzee commended the Boks’ scramble defence for preventing the French from crossing the line. The fact remains, though, that the Boks need to do something about the metres they are conceding in those tramlines.
The first step towards rectifying the situation would be the selection of stronger players out wide who can nullify the Vakatawa and Huget threats. Ruan Combrinck, who is currently with the SA A side, would be suited to the task.
Coetzee also needs to inject some experience into that back three, as the communication between the individuals is simply not where it needs to be.
Hooker Malcolm Marx had a strong game as a ball-carrier, and the offload that set up Jesse Kriel for the game’s first try was a beauty. That said, the Boks are still missing an influential No 7.
Oupa Mohoje had a quiet game at Loftus on Saturday, making just seven tackles (only one of them dominant) and 52m with ball in hand. The Boks did not use Mohoje – who was picked for his lineout prowess – as a lineout jumper at any stage in the game.
Jean-Luc du Preez made a big impact when he was brought on in the final 20 minutes. The Sharks blindside made four tackles – all of them dominant – as the Boks managed to keep France scoreless during that period. In the injury-enforced absence of Duane Vermeulen, the Boks would be better served with a gainline gladiator such as Du Preez or Ruan Ackermann in that position.
Coetzee declared himself satisfied with the kicking performance on Saturday. And yet neither team kicked much at Loftus (the Boks put boot to ball 20 times and France 13 times). The visitors actually enjoyed 57% of the territory and made more metres per kick than South Africa did.
France had 59% of the possession. While some credit must go to the Bok defence for withstanding such an assault, questions must be asked of the visitors’ handling skills and finishing ability.
France made a whopping 37 handling errors on Saturday. The game may have been different had the visitors been more clinical. It’s something to bear in mind for the Boks, as France will be boosted by the return of several first-choice players in the second Test.
The Boks made a start at Loftus, but they will have more to prove at Kings Park and Ellis Park in the coming weeks. Coetzee will also be under greater scrutiny as a selector and tactician when France are at full strength.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images