Underestimating France would be a dangerous thing

Rassie Erasmus (Getty)
Rassie Erasmus (Getty)

Johannesburg - Times have changed when it comes to the French, and it is reflected in the recent Springbok record against them, but the South Africans should consider themselves forewarned by the little hints that times may also now be changing back to what they were.

There was a time when the Boks knew they underestimated France at their peril. Indeed, several times in the early part of this century, that fact was drummed home to them in an emphatic way. Like the day in June 2001 when Harry Viljoen’s team begun the year in an ambitious mood against what was supposed to be an understrength and weak French side in Johannesburg - and lost quite convincingly!

A few years later a Bok side coached by Jake White endured a similar experience on home soil, although they did escape from that game with a draw before winning well in Port Elizabeth a week later.

That was 2005, which also happened to be the last year that France beat South Africa at the venue for Saturday night’s test, Stade de France. It was a bitterly cold day at the end of a long year for the Boks. In fact, it snowed in Paris on the morning of the game. The Boks played like they were cold and lost 26-20. Since then Stade de France has been a happy hunting ground if you factor in the wins scored there in the 2007 World Cup.

There has been only one French win over the Boks on any ground since 2006, which was when Jake White's team lost the first home test under his coaching to the French at Newlands. That was in Toulouse in 2009. Remember that game? Yes, it was the one where the singer turned the pre-match rendering of the national anthem into a reggae song. It threw the Boks out, or so they say, and they ended up playing as if they were on a beach in the Caribbean.

Since then there have been no nasty surprises. John Smit’s team thumped the French at Newlands on the same weekend as the FIFA World Cup opened in 2010, and until last year’s one point win in Paris, the French hadn’t come close.

But last year’s close call should be seen as a warning by the Boks, for at this point where there are more defeats on Rassie Erasmus’ record than wins and they can ill afford to slip again. Scotland, who they play next week, are not the soft touches they once were - particularly not in Edinburgh.

What should also be taken as a warning is the growing feeling among many coaches that France are slowly going to start emerging as a major threat again as they work on becoming a major force when they host the World Cup again in 2023. That process has already started, as reflected by the impressive French performance at the Junior World Championship this year.

A top international coach who shall remain anonymous for the obvious reason that he may well be coaching a rival nation then even told me earlier this year that France would be his tip to win the 2023 World Cup.Their performances in the last Six Nations were mediocre and they only managed a lowly fourth, but they did beat England and lost narrowly (15-13) to Ireland. With a bit of luck they could have challenged for the trophy.

And while the big defeats reflected by the scores during their tour of New Zealand suggested they were outplayed, those results deserve closer scrutiny. The French were victims of some questionable match officiating that twice saw them reduced to 14 men and in some of the games they were still competitive reasonably late in the piece.

Nope, if the expectation is for the Boks to win by a mile on Saturday that needs to be adjusted. It could happen, anything is possible against France. But don’t anticipate it, because we may be heading back to the days where it all depends on the French mood, and France have shown just enough hints of a resurgence lately to make them dangerous despite what now has become a long losing streak and a drought against South Africa that stretches back almost a decade (admittedly there have only been six matches between the nations since 2009).

What is correct to assume though is that Siya Kolisi’s team is well equipped to win and to make up for last week’s disappointment on the other side of the English Channel with a rousing performance. There may be some quibbles about Duane Vermeulen playing flank and not No 8, but the experiment does have obvious merit if you consider the experience and leadership ability of Warren Whiteley. Vermeulen’s ability to play to the ball is also a factor. It is something that deserved to be tried in more than just one game, with the Boks likely to revert to the Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vermeulen combination once Eben Etzebeth is fit again.

Akker van der Merwe should be part of the Bok touring squad and so should Jean-Luc du Preez, there isn’t too much question about that, but Erasmus has got the selection for this particular match spot on. Based on last week’s evidence, we should be eagerly looking forward to what Sbu Nkosi can do on the wing, and we already know of Aphiwe Dyantyi’s abilities. Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick was spot on with what he said earlier in the week, the South African contesting of the aerial kicks is improving.

Nkosi nearly scored when he soared up and won the ball from a cross kick early in the game at Twickenham, though the use of that “nearly” word does sum up the Boks’ main challenge at Stade de France. With Erasmus as coach, the plan is likely to be the right one. What needs to be got right is the execution. When that comes, this Bok team is going to be a formidable force indeed.

One bit of advice though: It would be the height of folly for the Boks to be true to the threat of executing Owen Farrell type shoulder charges as textbook tackles in this game. The world’s most experienced referee, Nigel Owens, is in charge, and he won’t feel that the World Rugby silence on last week’s controversy has anything to do with him. If a Bok repeats the Farrell charge Owens will do what Angus Gardner should have done last week by awarding France a penalty and yellow carding that player.

And because he’s a referee with the backbone that should be required to officiate at this level, it won’t matter when in the game that offence happens.

Read this story on SuperSport.com

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