The Springboks’ new culture and appetite for physicality will be put to the test against an abrasive French team on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Pretoria.
Last year, the Boks surrendered their physical aura. The point was made at home and abroad by many in the know. Duane Vermeulen, one of the true hardmen of Springbok rugby, said as much in a frank interview in the latest edition of SA Rugby magazine.
‘[Last year] we forgot about who we are and what we stand for,’ the Bok No 8 told me. ‘We lost our identity. We need to remember that South African rugby has a lot of good traits. We must build on those strengths as we strive to get back all we have lost.’
Vermeulen went on to say how desperately he wanted to be part of the solution. He pledged allegiance to a new captain – in the event of him not winning the Bok captaincy himself – and vowed to inspire an improved performance at the collisions and breakdowns.
Unfortunately, a powerful performance for Toulon in the Top 14 final on Sunday came at a cost. Vermeulen sustained a shoulder injury in that decider against Clermont and was subsequently ruled out of the first Test against France at Loftus Versfeld.
Which leads us to the obvious question: if not Vermeulen, then who will lead the Boks’ physical charge against France?
The Boks head into the first game of the new season with everything to prove. Six months have passed since their last Test against Wales.
Going by what has been said by fans on social media, and indeed, what has been said by the Bok head coach at the most recent press conference in Pretoria, many have forgotten just how poor South Africa fared across the year.
Not only did South Africa finish 2016 with a 33% win-record, but with four consecutive losses. A defeat to France at Loftus on Saturday would mark their fifth-straight defeat as well as the first time they have lost five on the trot since 2006.
On Monday, Allister Coetzee implored journalists – and therefore the South African public – to forget about 2016. At the same time, he admitted that the Boks needed to lay down a marker at Loftus this weekend.
A win is non-negotiable. A performance that speaks to the identity of this Bok side and indeed does justice to those great South African teams of the past, is just as important.
Publicly, Coetzee has played down the loss of Vermeulen. He has backed the loose forwards who have attended recent training camps staged in South Africa.
Going by the players in the current squad – Jaco Kriel, Siya Kolisi, Oupa Mohoje, Jean-Luc du Preez and Warren Whiteley – the Boks look set to field an untried back-row combination. One struggles to see how they will realise their gainline goals with those players in tow.
Whiteley and Kriel have proved outstanding options when competing in the wider channels this season. Kolisi, by his own admission in an interview with SA Rugby magazine, wants to beat players with his feet rather than his bulk. Again, this begs the question of who will assume the role of enforcer in the Bok back row.
The Bok pack will need to set the tone in the early stages of Saturday’s match against France. The tourists, in their recent press conference offerings, have branded the Boks as favourites, even though this year's Six Nations showings have highlighted the threat of the Les Bleus loose trio.
France handing the Boks the favourites tag is not a good sign. France are at their most dangerous when expectations are low. When they start to gather momentum in a contest, they can be difficult to stop.
Ask the All Blacks, who have lost many a Test to an ‘underdog’ French side over the years.
Remember the 1999 World Cup semi-final, the 2007 World Cup quarter-final, and even the 2011 World Cup final? France produced an inspired physical performance in each of those crunch matches. They came within a couple of points of beating New Zealand in New Zealand in the decider of the 2011 tournament.
On Monday, Coetzee spoke about starting a new culture at the Boks. Coetzee believes that the team is in a better space than it was at this point last year, as the players have attended three training camps and have had the opportunity to bond with one another and settle into new structures.
Coetzee also feels more confident about the Boks’ gainline and defensive prowess now Brendan Venter is with the team – at least for the duration of the series against France. Thereafter, Venter will rejoin Italy, who beat South Africa in Florence last year and will face the Boks at the 2019 World Cup.
Coetzee was asked about the ‘DNA of Bok rugby’ on Monday. He gave a long-winded answer that pretty much covered every aspect of the game.
He was at this most animated, however, when he spoke about the contact situations. The Boks need to win the gainline battle on Saturday to regain a modicum of respect. A scenario that sees France bullying South Africa at the collisions and breakdowns at Loftus – the traditional home of physical rugby in this country – would be a disaster.
Coetzee knows this. He knows that the time has come to send a message to the South African public.
The Boks have to win this Saturday, They also need to show what kind of team they are.
Photo: Kai Scwoerer/Getty Images