/ 11 June 2010

French verve a real test of Bok depth

The rude health of South African rugby will be tested to the full at Newlands on Saturday.

The rude health of South African rugby will be tested to the full at Newlands on Saturday. Coach Marc Lievremont announced a powerful French team for the encounter and something about Newlands always seems to bring out the best in them.

Several of this week’s squad were in the French team that beat the Springboks in Cape Town four years ago, including the dynamic winger Vincent Clerc, who scored two tries and made another in the 36-26 win.

It was a win that brought to an end the impressive sequence of home wins under Jake White. It was an important corrective measure just 15 months ahead of the 2007 World Cup. At that time White was trying to convince us that a “fetcher” flank was an unnecessary adjunct in the modern game, and the performance of the French back row that day helped convince him otherwise.

Current coach Peter de Villiers is also some 15 months away from a World Cup and, just as was the case with White, De Villiers has his favourites. One of these is Ricky Januarie, who has again been selected at scrumhalf. White also liked Januarie and the irony will not be lost on De Villiers that the same player was being criticised for much the same reasons under White’s guidance four years ago.

Nevertheless, this Bok team looks a good deal more powerful than the one that beat Wales 34-31 last week. The coach has an embarrassment of riches in several positions that shows how quickly the game can change. Not long ago Jean de Villiers would have been straight back in the team the moment he regained fitness, whichever hemisphere he happened to be campaigning in. But the former Western Province captain has to bide his time on the bench due to the outstanding form displayed in the Super 14 by Wynand Olivier. And the try that Juan de Jongh scored on his Test debut may not propel him above Olivier in the pecking order either.

Ruan Pienaar could be forgiven for experiencing a certain amount of déjà vu as he returns to the bench to cover both halfback positions and fullback. Pienaar might rightly have thought that the shoulder operation that will keep Fourie du Preez out of the game for the rest of the year was his passport into the starting line up, but the coach had other ideas.

There are several players both on the bench and not in the squad who might count themselves unfortunate, but again that is the mark of the strength of the game in this country right now. How Bafana Bafana might wish for the depth of playing resources De Villiers has at his disposal.

It’s a good time to have a genuine Test match to test a few assumptions. The French are the reigning Six Nations champions and they share with South Africa an ability to hurt opponents in many different ways. Against Ireland, their rivals for northern hemisphere supremacy, Lievremont’s team spread the ball to the extremities and played the kind of rugby that has made France justly famous. Against England they reined themselves in, played a conservative kicking game, and got the job done in much less eye-catching fashion.

France traditionally play well in South Africa. They enjoy the fast playing surfaces and physical challenge. They are never hamstrung by the possibility of defeat and as a result have a far superior playing record here than any of the other Six Nations sides.

At Newlands in 2006 France scored four tries to one against the Boks, producing the kind of performance that few teams have managed in 100 years of Test matches in this country. The pace and wit of the French shocked South Africa and it is not impossible that the same might happen this time around.

White fought desperately during his reign to increase the base of Test-match hardened players, but the Newlands defeat hit him hard. De Villiers, on the other hand, has an extended squad so filled with talent that defeat would be a mere speed bump on the road to the next World Cup. If it all comes together this could be the best Test match played anywhere in the world this year.