The pressure is on the Springbok defence to deliver a reputation-boosting performance in the three-Test series against France, writes JON CARDINELLI.
DANCE OF THE DESPERATES
The Boks are coming off their worst season in the professional era. A record of eight defeats in 12 Tests included historic losses to Ireland, Argentina and Italy. Allister Coetzee’s charges finished 2016 with four consecutive losses and were subsequently relegated to seventh in the World Rugby rankings.
A defeat to France in Pretoria this coming Saturday would extend their rotten run to five. Not since 2006 have the Boks lost five Tests in a row.
France finished third in the 2017 Six Nations without playing a particularly convincing brand of rugby. Thanks to wins against Scotland, Italy and Wales, Les Bleus have moved up to sixth in the World Rugby rankings.
Do they have what it takes to beat the Boks this month and record their second series win in South Africa? That result would mean a first home series defeat for the Boks since their 2-1 loss to the British & Irish Lions in 1997. It would also ensure that Coetzee’s side adds another unwanted record to an already infamous tally.
While the Boks held their own at the set pieces last year, their effort and accuracy at the collisions and breakdowns left a lot to be desired. By the end of the season, most critics were in agreement that the Boks had well and truly surrendered their once intimidating aura.
France certainly have the players to hurt the Boks at the gainline and at the rucks this June. No 8 Louis Picamoles proved one of Les Bleus’ most effective ball-carriers in the Six Nations, while openside flank Kevin Gourdon was a force at the breakdowns.
That said, which French side will pitch up at Loftus Versfeld, Kings Park and Ellis Park over the next three weeks? Will the visitors favour the fabled Biarritz belligerence or channel the traditional flair of Toulouse in these contests? And just how will the timing of this series – at the end of a long French domestic season which runs from August to June – impact on the tourists’ performance?
The Boks shouldn’t concern themselves with such questions, though. While their task is made easier by the timing of this series, the fact remains that the South Africans have everything to prove after a poor – and at times humiliating – 2016 season.
BALANCE IN SELECTION
The balance of the back row will be crucial. Loose forward Duane Vermeulen, the man tasked with leading Toulon in the Top 14 final, will only link up with the Boks later in the week. It’s believed that Coetzee is reluctant to start Vermeulen in the first Test because of the player’s late arrival.
What this means is that Jean-Luc du Preez could be asked to lead the physical charge from the blindside position, with less combative players such as Siya Kolisi and Jaco Kriel vying for the openside berth and Warren Whiteley starting at No 8.
That combination lacks balance as well as experience. In the very first game of the 2017 season, Coetzee looks set to gamble.
France have arrived in South Africa with some dangerous individual backs if not a dangerous backline combination. The 22-year-old scrumhalf Baptise Serin will require close marking, as will the hard-running Gael Fickou. Fijian-born Virimi Vakatawa is certain to test the defence of the smaller South African outside backs.
Brendan Venter is the fourth defence coach to be used by the Boks since the start of the 2016 season. Much has been said and written about Venter’s methods, as well as the success he has enjoyed as a head coach and defence specialist over the years. Yet one cannot expect miracles overnight.
The Bok defence was a shambles in 2016. It may take the new players and combinations some time to settle into the new structures. In the interim, France will have an opportunity to strike at the Boks’ weak points.
Elton Jantjies failed to carry across his commanding Super Rugby form to the Test stage in 2016. A string of poor kicking and defensive performances led to the Lions player being dropped after the away leg of the Rugby Championship. Morné Steyn was instated at No 10 for the home matches of that tournament, while Pat Lambie assumed the responsibility in two of the three Tests on the subsequent tour to Europe.
Injuries sustained in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament have ruled Handré Pollard and Lambie out of the coming series against France. Jantjies heads into the next three matches as the first-choice option – and indeed the only specialist flyhalf with experience across the Bok and SA A squads.
Once again, Jantjies has looked every bit the general while playing for the Lions in the Super Rugby tournament. What must be noted, however, is that the Lions haven’t played the New Zealand teams this season.
Jantjies will have much to prove in the coming series. The Boks will need the flyhalf to kick accurately for goal and out of hand. They will also need the diminutive player to show some courage and determination on defence when Picamoles and some of the bigger French backs charge down his channel.
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