The battle at the gainline will determine the war between the Springboks and a revamped France side at Kings Park on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘Laughable,’ said coach Guy Novès when asked to describe France’s insipid effort at the collisions and breakdowns at Loftus Versfeld. ‘A poor French team’ and ‘not good enough,’ added fullback Scott Spedding when speaking to the local media in Umhlanga on Thursday.
The result at Loftus came as no surprise. France went into the first game of the series without a host of star players. What did come as a surprise was the manner in which the French were bullied at the collisions and breakdowns by a hungrier Bok side.
The upshot is that France will have a physical point to prove when they front the Boks at Kings Park on Saturday. In a sense, the tourists have been building towards the second Test of the series since they first arrived in South Africa.
Their best players have had over a week to rest and adjust to local conditions. Many of them watched from the stands last week as their side produced an embarrassing display. If the French players channel that anger and frustration into a forceful and dominant forward display at Kings Park they will win the game and level the series.
The Boks have made all the right noises this week. Coach Allister Coetzee has acknowledged the threat of a French backlash, and has assured all and sundry that his team will be taking their own game to a new level at Kings Park.
Yet Coetzee’s selections tell another story. They suggest that the Boks will pick up where they left off at Loftus. A physical storm is coming, and from the look of things, Coetzee’s starting XV may battle to survive it.
Coetzee has decided to bring Lionel Mapoe in at No 13 for Jesse Kriel, who sustained a concussion in the first Test. He has backed Jan Serfontein to start at No 12.
Meanwhile, a world-class player in Frans Steyn, who boasts more Test caps than Elton Jantjies, Seftontein and Mapoe combined, as well as World Cup and Tri-Nations winners' medals, has been picked on the bench. Steyn’s formidable kicking game and physical presence won’t be harnessed from the outset.
Clearly Coetzee feels that what worked at Loftus will work at Kings Park. That mindset may cost the Boks dearly.
The pack that fronted France in the first Test has been retained. The Boks should face a greater challenge at the set pieces, with Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani bolstering the France scrum and the likes of Romain Taofifeuna strengthening their lineout. No 8 Louis Picamoles should be a greater ball-carrying and defensive threat in the event of his tight five bossing the set pieces.
Flanker Jean-Luc du Preez made a massive impact off the bench at Loftus last Saturday. One wonders why he has not been promoted to the starting side for the second Test, a contest that will hinge on the fight in the trenches.
The current Bok back row lacks balance. Granted, Siya Kolisi, Oupa Mohoje and Warren Whiteley did a fair job behind a dominant tight five last week. In a tighter clash, though, the Boks will miss a player of Duane Vermeulen's physical prowess.
Du Preez has proved that he has the appetite for the hard graft and that he is capable of making those game-shaping decisions at the breakdowns. While the Boks do possess a couple of strong physical specimens in Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx, someone in the back row will also need to step up if the hosts are to win the battle at the gainline.
Mohoje said it himself on Thursday: the Boks have to apply the pressure up front and keep those dangerous France halfbacks on the back foot.
Baptiste Serin has a bullet of a pass. He can be devastating on the run when his pack provides a platform. The 22-year-old scrumhalf will have the benefit of playing alongside a more experienced No 10 in Francois Trinh-Duc (58 Tests).
If the France halfbacks receive quick ball, the Bok defence will be under pressure. Wingers Yoann Huget and Virimi Vakatawa made easy metres in the wider channels last week. Damian Penaud has been in great form for Clermont and will be looking to make an impact on Test debut. The Boks' back-three players – who have three caps between them – as well as a new-look midfield should have their hands full at Kings Park.
The pressure has eased on Coetzee and his charges in the wake of the 37-14 win at Loftus. That result ended a four-game losing streak, and earned the Boks a 1-0 lead in a series that will determine Coetzee’s future with the team.
There is, of course, a danger of becoming complacent following such a big victory. If the Boks don't arrive at Kings Park with the right attitude, and if they fail to meet the physical challenge of a combative France side that has a score to settle, they will finish on the wrong side of the result.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 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.
Su bs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Ooshuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
France – 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Romain Taofifeuna, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Clément Maynadier, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Julien le Devedec, 20 Bernard le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Nans Ducuing.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images