Boks must channel anger, bury France

Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)
Rassie Erasmus (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Constructive aggression and intensity ... that’s what South Africa must aim to take onto the Stade de France pitch this Saturday following their varying frustrations at Twickenham.

The game against the essentially moderate, eighth-ranked French has become a “must win” in many respects: the Boks of 2018 have slipped into negative win-percentage terrain (45.45%) and another setback would increase the danger of the tour as a whole - with Scotland and Wales still ahead - going belly-up at a wearying time of year for southern hemisphere players even as things stand.

But these Boks and their head coach, Rassie Erasmus, continue, despite the bumps on the road, to look a “nearly very decent” outfit and you do pick up a sense that public sentiment is still some way short of turning mutinous against them in any pronounced way.

A personnel tweak here, greater accuracy in execution of a well-intended move there ... the Springboks look closer to a World Cup 2019-challenging outfit than they did a year ago, unless you are a diehard devotee of previous mastermind Allister Coetzee and have a fierily alternative take on this.

Bear in mind, as I wrote in the aftermath of the controversial 12-11 loss to England, that the current national side are already one win better off than they were after year one of Coetzee’s two-year spell in charge and had a considerably better Rugby Championship, very recently, than they did in 2017.

So all is not lost ... though many people will also begin to substantially revise their views, you can be sure, if they crash to the French for the first time in seven bilateral encounters.

That is why it is essential for Erasmus, one of the shrewder and more perceptive strategists out there, to channel the indignation the vast majority of his charges presumably feel over the result-influencing Owen Farrell flashpoint into a rip-roaring, focused and more polished showing in Paris (22:05 SA time).

It is well within them, against another European side hit with injury problems and who last played (in a three-Test series) in New Zealand during June: they were duly beaten 52-11, 26-13 and 49-14.

They are on a four-game losing streak if you add in their Six Nations-closer against Wales in Cardiff (13-14), although the previous match had seen them down England 22-16 at Stade de France which should snap the Boks - considering their own latest outcome against Eddie Jones’s charges - out of any sense of complacency.

South Africa did pip the French 18-17 on their equivalent European tour last year, and that despite fielding a backline, in particular, that was loaded with players (Andries Coetzee, Dillyn Leyds, Francois Venter, Courtnall Skosan) who have since dropped notably off the green-and-gold radar.

The current back division has a collectively deadlier look and feel to it, though some cynicism on that view would justifiably mount if the Boks play second fiddle this weekend.

It will be a surprise if Erasmus finds it hard to motivate his men for the Parisian challenge, given what went down at “Twickers” and the climate of injustice fostered by many neutrals and even a few English supporters: plenty of Bok individuals had genuinely good personal matches despite the setback, both behind the pack and in the heart of the boiler room itself.

Similarly, there would be cause for some frowns if the coach shakes the selection bag too violently later this week, albeit that premier lock Eben Etzebeth is regrettably laid low again and Erasmus will have some availabilities of foreign-based players as reasonably pleasant dilemmas to grapple with.

The Boks looked in massive command for generous tracts of the Twickenham clash, as evidenced from much of the statistical data, and if the error-rate is spiritedly arrested in game two they really should be in profitable business.

Just another reason to think “glass half full” is that South Africa, last Saturday, did not concede a try (and seldom truly looked like doing so, either) for the first time under Erasmus’s tenure – that last happened 13 Tests ago when they beat admittedly humdrum Italy 35-6 in Padova in November last year.

But they might also, and especially considering their infuriating attacking lineout woes, take greater heed as this tour progresses of the well-meaning advice recently on Sport24 from former coach Heyneke Meyer, who had an excellent record on end-of-year tours.

Meyer reminded of the value of being prepared to “arm-wrestle, grind games out” in European conditions ... and said that included, often enough, being prepared to kick at the posts when opportunities were on offer to build gradual scoreboard pressure.

In retrospect, spurning some chances to kick goals from penalties in a tussle decided by one, agonising point in London may be haunting some of the Bok players and strategists ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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