The Springboks should be looking to KO France at Ellis Park this Saturday and ride the momentum of a 3-0 series victory into the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
The bout has already been decided. The Boks, who were so physically dominant in the first two rounds in Pretoria and Durban, have taken an unassailable lead on points. All that remains is for them to land the knockout blow on a France side that may be, at this late stage of their season, more than a little punch drunk.
The pressure has eased on the home side in that the series result is in the bag and the job of head coach Allister Coetzee is safe. The Bok coaches and players have gone out of their way over the past three weeks to convince all and sundry that the bad memory of 2016 has been erased and that it doesn’t warrant mentioning ever again.
Yet Coetzee himself will know that seasons such as the one that was witnessed in 2016 are not so easily forgotten.
Indeed, that record of eight defeats in 12 Tests – the worst return by a Bok side in the professional era – may endure for many years to come. The most recent results against France have helped Coetzee’s cause, though, and a 3-0 whitewash would certainly ensure that the players – as well as the South African public – look forward to the more challenging Rugby Championship with optimism.
The Boks have made progress with regards to their defence and physicality over the course of this series; and when the platform has been set, good decisions have been made with ball in hand. The input of defence coach Brendan Venter into the overall game plan, as well as into the contest-shaping department of defence, has been crucial.
This week, the Boks will begin the Test with their strongest available back row. Duane Vermeulen sustained a shoulder injury on the eve of this series, while Oupa Mohoje suffered a concussion in the early stages of the second match in Durban. It could be argued that a fit Vermeulen would further strengthen the back row, given his experience. In his absence, Jean-Luc du Preez is the next best option at No 7.
The Bok back row lacked balance in the first Test and during the early stages of the second. That combination looked far more threatening when Du Preez was introduced. It will be interesting to see how that unit functions from the outset at Ellis Park now that Du Preez has been elevated.
Siya Kolisi said last week that Du Preez is not a player that needs to be motivated ahead of a particularly physical encounter. Indeed, the 21-year-old may be going all out to prove a point this Saturday in what will be his first start for the Boks.
Coetzee still rates Mohoje, and one would expect Vermeulen to come back into the squad ahead of the Rugby Championship. Du Preez made a statement in Durban last week, and will be looking to back it up with another powerful showing at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The same should apply to several others in the Bok squad. Coetzee has made four changes in all to his starting lineup.
Jesse Kriel will want to impress with a strong performance in that crucial defensive position of No 13. Francois Hougaard, who is in for the injured Ross Cronjé, will have the chance to prove that he is a sound tactical option at No 9, as well as a strong carrier around the fringes.
Ruan Dreyer has been the form South African tighthead in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. He will play his first match for the Boks this Saturday, and on his home ground at Ellis Park.
Only two changes have been made to the starting pack, which should ensure that the forwards build on the set-piece showings in Pretoria and Durban. Dreyer will be packing down alongside his Lions teammate Malcolm Marx in the scrums, and will have another familiar face in Franco Mostert behind him in the second row.
France have emerged victorious on all four occasions when they have played the Boks at Ellis Park. However, at the end of a long and bruising tour, and at the end of a taxing European season that began last August, one wouldn’t bet on Les Bleus to produce the type of performance that is needed to slay the Boks on the highveld.
The impact of the respective benches will be crucial. The Boks have a good mix of power and athleticism on the wood. The addition of Jaco Kriel, a firm favourite at his home ground of Ellis Park, could spell danger for France, particularly in the fourth quarter.
It’s in the dying stages of the contest where the Boks should pile on the points and send France to the canvas.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
France – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Nans Ducuing, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa. 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Vincent Rattez.
Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images