It would be tempting to list all the reasons why South Africa’s win in the first Test against France was irrelevant. The French excluded players from Clermont and Toulon for the Loftus game. They will return this week. The tourists arrived late and did not adjust properly to Highveld conditions. This week they play at sea level in Durban. And so on …
Despite all the counterarguments, it must be recorded that the Springboks played with the kind of verve and self-confidence that was conspicuous by its absence in 2016. It is impossible to believe, for instance, that this team would have lost to Italy in Florence.
That said, it beggars belief that only two members of Saturday’s side started at the birthplace of the Renaissance back in November — Warren Whiteley and Tendai Mtawarira. That is how far we have come. If anyone had suggested then that the team could be enhanced immeasurably by the inclusion of Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronjé, Courtnall Skosan, Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert, there would have been some wry smiles and head scratching.
What coach Allister Coetzee has wrought may have had a very different look if his hands were untied. For, on paper at least, the inclusion of many overseas-based players would strengthen the Springboks immeasurably. But, in reality, the hunger and attitude of the Lions players will be the enduring memory of the Loftus Test.
There were seven of them in the run-on side against France, including an under-fire Elton Jantjies. The flyhalf endured a torrid time in Test rugby last year and, if it had not been for a number of injured alternative players, he would not have made the squad, let alone the starting 15. It might be termed a happy accident, although the coaching staff would demur.
Jantjies is perhaps not a good example, for his ability has never been questioned, only his temperament. Marx, too, is a fairly classic example of a South African international rugby player, spotted early, playing for South African Schools (albeit at flank) and easily ticking the boxes marked size and weight.
The rest are rejects, people who did not fit into the system. Mostert and Skosan left the Bulls to join the Lions, whereas Whiteley (briefly) and Cronjé (at length) were attached to the Sharks and schooled in KwaZulu-Natal.
For his part, Andries Coetzee is a Lions man through and through, but even there he is regarded as a journeyman.
Yet it was Coetzee who ignited the game because of his refusal to die with the ball on the half hour at Loftus. He brushed off a tackle, released the ball on the ground long enough to satisfy the officials, then fed Marx, who gave the scoring pass to Jesse Kriel.
It was the kind of unfettered play almost never seen last year, owing much to an innate desire to play outside of a stultifying pattern.
As for Cronjé, an awful lot of humble pie must have been consumed in Pretoria last Saturday night. The scrumhalf with more than 100 first-class games under his belt chose his international debut to have the game of his life. It may have been a flash in the pan but, if so, it was a glorious one. In the words of the new Bulls coach, John Mitchell, Cronjé is “someone who can deal with the chaos and take the pressure off the team”.
Mitchell also noted Cronjé’s ability to “be able to feed flat-lying players without denying line speed”.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. For the Springboks, most of last year was about long, deep passes from the set pieces and the tight-loose, which resulted in far too many moves being executed behind the gain line. The addition of Cronjé to the mix brought Jantjies and the back row forward, closer to the action.
Success at the highest level is defined by such small adjustments and it is greatly in coach Coetzee’s favour that he has two more games against the same opposition ahead of the team.
Meanwhile, his opposite number, Guy Noves, will scrutinise the match video and look for a way to neutralise the South African halfbacks.
Noves should have a far stronger tight five this week, a tool that will automatically limit the time and space available to Cronjé and Jantjies. Coetzee will need to come up with something innovative to maintain the edge.
It is also the case that last week’s 15 was far from being a conclusive selection. Coetzee may, for example, need to take the long view on the loosehead prop position. Mtawarira is in the autumn of an illustrious career and the time is ripe to blood Lizo Gqoboka. The Bulls prop has the strength and dynamism of a young Mtawarira and now is the time to see whether international rugby suits him in the way it does the players based in Johannesburg.
Clearly, seven Lions players in the starting line-up are not enough. Lionel Mapoe should feature this week in place of the concussed Kriel, but space also needs to be made for Ruan Combrinck and Kwagga Smith.
The future has a mane and teeth sharpened on the steps of the last-chance saloon.