Rugby Test Preview: South Africa vs. France
After a largely experimental Springboks downed a Welsh side that continues to frustrate their supporters, the World and Tri Nations champions host a French team that has the arsenal to inflict the South Africans first loss at home to a test nation since August 2008.
That year, the newly crowned World Cup holders fumbled their way through the Tri Nations with four losses despite recording their first win in New Zealand since 1999.
At this point many believed that Peter de Villiers and his men were not the real deal, with their enigmatic coach questioned at every turn, and many believing that their triumph over England in Paris to claim the William Webb Ellis Cup was just a mirage.
Now they are on top of the world.
Still in the midst of their protected four year World title reign, they are holders of the Tri Nations, recent Lions conquerors, on a three match winning streak against the All Blacks, winners of the Super 14, and able to claim victory in Millennium Stadium 34-31 over Wales despite missing a galaxy of stars.
For now, the only thing missing from a gloriously full trophy cabinet is a recent scalp of Les Bleus.
And while the French are missing key players via injury and weary after a long test season, there is probably no stronger apparition of France that could arrive in Cape Town than this menacing beast that has finally awoken after a two year experiment by Coach Marc Lievremont.
France have won their last three matches against the Springboks, including their last encounter at the same ground they play at this weekend, winning 36-26 in 2006 with a dazzling four tries to one victory.
Their Grand Slam success in the Six Nations was very much the finishing stroke on a masterpiece Lievremont was convinced was waiting to happen, after using roughly 80 players in two years.
They now showcase a wonderful mix of brutality and class, and assuming Les Bleus can indeed settle on their best test XV, they could be entering a period of global dominance.
This though can only be anointed with a victory over the Springboks in the Republic.
As similar as the two teams are in basic elements—physical up front, dominating at the ruck, solid at the set piece and educated in their back divisions—France still has to truly lay to rest any theories of their historical inconsistency.
They were never truly challenged in the Six Nations, and when a solid but unspectacular England nearly upset them in Paris in their final match, that final nagging question was raised again.
For the Springboks, their reputation at this point in time is only theirs to lose.
The Super 14 showed that as a nation, they are at the top of their game.
They have the most settled, experienced and world-class line up of any test side. If the World Cup were a month away, they would enter it with a stable and near automatic first choice starting XV.
But what really showcases how in front of the world (or at least the Southern Hemisphere) the South Africans are is their grasp of how the match is played and their ability to play to the laws of the game. Last year it was their kicking strategies; this year it is their adjustment to the “pro-attacking” law interpretations.
Their only real weak link appears to be on paper the absence of arguably the world’s finest scrumhalf in Fourie du Preez, and whether or not this dominant rugby nation could be approaching the end of a golden cycle.
The absence of the champion Bulls number nine is worse for the fact that his match up with the audacious Morgan Parra, the best scrumhalf in Europe, would have been mouth watering.
The Clermont inside half is very much indicative of how the Tricolours approach their rugby; confident, brash, but with a strong understanding of how they want to play.
France’s last loss was to the All Blacks in Marseille when they tried to play the New Zealanders at their own game. That 39-12 defeat served as a lesson that was clearly well absorbed during the Six Nations, as the French now play in a style that suits them, not the opposition.
The game could be won anywhere.
Last year when Les Bleus beat the Springboks in Toulouse, it was because a fired up home pack had too much adrenaline and focus for what appeared to be a distracted South African group of forwards.
On paper at least, the two forward units appear evenly matched, with the Springboks looking stronger as a lineout division, but the French scrum was awe inspiring against their European rivals.
The back divisions too seem well matched, although the French three quarters look and play with far more verve and Je ne sais pas ce que
(I don’t know what!). The Springboks as a back unit are far more precise and structured, but lack of audaciousness makes them no less lethal.
This should be a classic.
Home advantage should count for something, as should the Springboks desire to kick off their home campaign strongly, but one feels that the French could spring a surprise in Newlands, if they turn up with the same mindset that was evident throughout the Six Nations.
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ricky Januarie , 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield , 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp. Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Dewald Potgieter, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Jean de Villiers.
France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 David Marty, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Aurelien Rougerie, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Romain Millo- Chluski, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo. Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Jean Baptiste Poux, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Dimitri Yachvili, 21 David Skrela, 22 Marc Andreu, 23 Luc Ducalcon
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