The mood in the camp has lightened significantly now that the Springboks have taken an unassailable lead in the three-Test series against France, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
Do or die. Those were head coach Allister Coetzee's options going into these three matches against France.
One could understand why Coetzee would be handed such an ultimatum by his bosses. The Boks lost eight Tests in 2016 and dropped to seventh in the World Rugby rankings. Many former players and coaches went as far as to suggest that South Africa had surrendered their once fearsome physical aura.
Two games – and more importantly, two wins – into the three-Test series against France, and the pressure to win has eased. Coetzee’s Boks have taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series, and Coetzee’s position as head coach is safe – at least for now.
The mood at the press conference held at the team hotel in Johannesburg on Monday was very different to those experienced at preceding media gatherings staged in Pretoria and Durban. Coetzee stressed the need to build on the two wins against France and to follow through with a third successive win at Ellis Park on Saturday. He reiterated that the team had achieved nothing as yet. However, Coetzee’s demeanour and manner in delivering the expected party line was far more relaxed. The mood of the training session held at Fourways High School on Monday afternoon was much the same.
There should be several unforced changes ahead of the third Test as Coetzee looks to explore a few alternate combinations before the Rugby Championship. The competition within the squad for starting places should, as Coetzee himself stated on Monday, motivate the players to lift their intensity over the course of this week and in the third Test itself.
The significant difference, of course, is that the result of that game doesn’t matter, at least in the sense that the Boks have already won the series. Coetzee would love to add another win to his tally, and to improve an overall record that at this stage is still a mediocre six from 14 (43%). A loss, though, wouldn’t cost him his job. Expect that to factor into whom he selects for the game at Ellis Park and how the Boks approach the contest.
The Boks deserve credit for winning the past two games and ending their losing streak. They deserve plaudits for addressing their problems at the gainline and breakdowns, as well as those issues on defence that cost them so dearly in 2016. The appointment of Brendan Venter has made the impact that so many hoped it would.
There is no reason to celebrate just yet, though. France were poor in Pretoria, and only slightly better in Durban. Will they get up for the final game of the series and show some pride?
Coach Guy Novès has assured all and sundry that the tourists will be up for the third clash of the series, which is also the last game of the French season. One wonders if the players will have the desire or the energy to engage a fired-up Bok side at the spiritual home of South African rugby this Saturday.
France will arrive in Johannesburg only on Thursday evening. The decision to remain in Durban in the lead-up to the third game of the series is not going to help the tourists’ cause.
The All Blacks have enjoyed great success against the Boks in this part of the world over the past few years. On each occasion, they have trained for a full week at altitude and have had the opportunity to adjust before a bruising and lung-bursting battle with the Boks.
The call to make the trip to the highveld at such a late stage in the week could backfire badly for France.
Photo: Steve Haag Sports