The Springboks face a mental as well as a physical challenge ahead of the must-win clash against France on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Paris.
How hard is it to win in this part of the world? In 2013, the Boks beat Les Bleus 19-10 at the Stade de France to end a 16-year drought on French soil. That victory was certainly hard-earned.
I remember seeing the players the next day at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Willem Alberts – South Africa’s star player on an unbeaten tour – was struggling to keep his balance in the customs queue. A few of the other forwards were sporting shiners and stitches. The battle in the pit of the Parisian coliseum was that brutal.
France can be a very different animal in their own territory. After all that’s happened this past week in Dublin and London, France will have their tails up. What’s more, they will be aware of the fear of failure in the Bok camp.
The Boks haven’t won a Test match since travelling to Salta in late August. Since then, they have slumped to two disappointing draws against Australia, two defeats to New Zealand – including that monumental 57-0 result in Albany – as well as a record loss to Ireland in Dublin.
To say that they are desperate for any sort of win this Saturday would be the mother of all understatements.
Coach Allister Coetzee has brought Duane Vermeulen back into the mix. One could ask why Vermeulen – one of the senior players and a former nominee for the World Rugby Player of the Year award – wasn’t in the squad from the outset. That he deserves to be there is not up for debate. Whether he deserves to carry the team’s hopes of a positive result all by himself is another story.
Vermeulen should make a difference this Saturday. Having spent the past two years in Toulon, he understands the French game. He knows the language and all of this knowledge will be of value to the Boks as they go up against France’s lineout and mauling game.
Vermeulen is not going to win this game on his own, though. As Coetzee said at the team announcement on Thursday, the Boks have to be smarter at the breakdown – they conceded nine turnovers against the streetsmart Irish – and they have to control the gainline. Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Francois Louw and new inside centre Francois Venter will all have key roles to play in this regard.
That said, are the Boks in the right mental space? It’s believed that this four-game sojourn to the northern hemisphere will be Coetzee’s last as Bok coach. The players and coaches have made all the right noises when speaking to the press this week, but there is a sense that they are going through the motions.
The 35-point defeat to Ireland was a significant blow. A loss like that puts a team on the back foot for the rest of the tour, as Handré Pollard pointed out in an interview on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, World Rugby announced that France, and not its recommended candidate South Africa, had won hosting rights to the 2023 World Cup. That decision was lauded in this part of the world, and denounced as a farce just about every where else.
Already there is talk in the local media about what this result could mean for the game at the Stade de France on Saturday. The hosts will be buzzing. With a big crowd behind them, they will wage war on the Boks at the set pieces and collisions.
As was the case in 2013, there will be blood.
The first 30 minutes of the contest will be game-defining. The Boks lost the physical battles and failed to deal with the high ball in the early stages of last week’s game. By half-time, they were 14-0 down. As Coetzee said afterwards, they were always going to battle to come back from there.
Vermeulen will boost the Boks at the collisions, breakdowns and lineouts. He should also bring more to the defence in terms of on-field organisation.
The big question, however, is whether the Bok pack can deliver a more accurate scrum performance. If France get the upper hand and translate early dominance into points – as Ireland did last week– then it could be another long evening for the South Africans.
Coetzee has selected a stronger tactical-kicking flyhalf in Pollard for the clash against the French. Pollard has the ability to take the ball to the gainline and, as one of the bigger No 10s around, isn’t afraid to get stuck in on defence.
The Boks battled in the wet conditions last week, though, and the fact that the coming game will be played at 9pm counts against them. It’s been bitterly cold in Paris this week, and the field may be wet by kickoff.
France coach Guy Novès has selected a side capable of winning the set pieces and collisions. We could see that young halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Anthony Belleau running at an inexperienced Bok backline combination over the course of the 80 minutes.
Then again, we may see them copying and pasting the Irish tactics of last week. Kick the ball onto the Boks’ small back three, win back possession, and then run at a fractured defence.
This is a massive clash for the Boks in the context of the tour and in the context of their season. If they lose this one, they may well lose the next two. That would see them finishing the year with a win record of 38%.
Win in Paris, and the Boks may take some momentum into the subsequent clashes in Padua and Cardiff.
It may not be enough to save Coetzee’s job, but a series of improved physical and tactical performances and ultimately three wins would add some respectability to South Africa’s 2017 scorecard.
France – 15 Nans Ducuing, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Mathieu Bastareaud, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Anthony Belleau, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Judicael Cancoriet, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Subs: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Sebastien Taofifenua, 18 Daniel Kotze, 19 Paul Jedreasiak, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Damian Penaud.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Damian de Allende.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images