France: Meyer’s next big ‘un

Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Cape Town - Call it the big, unticked box: as many as four of Heyneke Meyer’s most recent predecessors as Springbok coach have failed in their attempt to put one over France in their own, often passionate backyard.

So while his personal duck against world leaders New Zealand has extended to an unfortunate four matches in two years of trying, at least the incumbent gets a crack shortly at breaking another modern Bok bogey when his charges tackle France late next month.

Mercifully South Africa have another relatively short northern-climes tour this year, its three-match duration emulating the 2012 roster when the side registered mostly narrow wins against Ireland, Scotland and England.

They tackle Wales first on November 9, two weeks after the Currie Cup final, then Scotland on November 17 and the fitting cherry on top, if you like, is the game against France in Paris on November 23.

It deserves headline status for more reasons than just the fact that the French are highest of the three opponents on the current IRB rankings, in fifth (Wales are sixth and Scotland ninth).

The Boks don’t have an awful lot to prove against either of the latter two, considering that they beat both in their own strongholds the last time they met and almost always have their measure more broadly.

But France have proved more than tenacious opponents in the last few years – although South Africa still lead 21-11 in overall meetings, Les Bleus have narrowed the gap quite substantially by winning five of the last eight encounters between the two anywhere.

Their home record is particularly sturdy: victories in all of the last four matches.

That has meant a failure, in Bok coaching terms, for each of Peter de Villiers (2009, 20-13 in Toulouse), Jake White (2005, 26-20 in Paris), Rudolf Straeuli (2002, 30-10 in Marseille) and Harry Viljoen (2001, 20-10 in Paris).

You have to stretch back to 1997 for the last Bok win in France, when Nick Mallett famously oversaw a fairytale Parisian 52-10 outcome in South Africa’s favour.

That is all of 16 years ago, making it by far the longest time the Boks have waited since last triumph on the road over any team in the world’s top 10.

It is a bit of a mystery, because it is not as though France have been a routinely formidable foe, and they are rather in the doldrums at present.

Unusual stragglers in the 2013 Six Nations, they were also soundly beaten 3-0 in a series in New Zealand during the June Test window period this year and currently boast very few players of genuine gravitas.

All this only increases the onus on the Boks, whom many neutrals now regard as very credible "No 2" to New Zealand on the global pecking order, to finally knock over the French away after too many years in which they have exhibited a weird stage-fright.

Over the next few weeks you will doubtless get the usual diplomatic-speak from the Bok management ahead of the November tour, saying that all three matches are important, and the like.

Make no mistake, though, the focal point of this trip both statistically and symbolically is that overdue quest to topple France, and everyone in the Bok camp knows it.

Appropriately, I believe, it seems at least three in every four supporters of our national team still have firm faith in Meyer’s vision, despite another second-fiddle experience on Saturday against the mighty All Blacks for him and his troops.

Certainly if a Sport24 poll this week is any yardstick, 76 percent of enthusiasts are presently happy to entrust Meyer with onward steering of the ship to the next World Cup in 2015.

That number will rise further, I have little doubt, if the Boks complete another three-out-of-three European job next month ... with the French scalp a really welcome feather in the coach’s cap.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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