Pure desire allowed France to punch above their weight while the punch-drunk Springboks were unable to deliver the classic combos with the typical impact.
On Friday, I wrote the Boks had been calm like a bomb in the build up to the Test. They’d dealt with the criticism of their robust approach with diplomatic aplomb, suggesting they’d have a more vehement reply to the accusations when the game kicked off.
Unfortunately, that bomb never went off. The fuse fizzled, and while the droves of South African supporters inside the Municipal Stadium stood there with fingers in ears, the bomb proved to be a dud.
The Boks were the classier outfit, but they were second to the French when it came to physicality. Unlike the Australians who occasionally manage to lose the physical battle but win the war on the scoreboard, South Africa needs front-foot ball to employ their simple yet (usually) effective game plan. A tired display in Toulouse denied them go-forward up front, and that translated into a static performance by the backline.
The French media have gone big with the win, unashamedly hugging each other in the press box when Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle. Every headline this Saturday includes the phrase “Coupe de Monde” (world champions) suggesting the French are celebrating a win over the World Cup holders. It doesn’t matter that South Africa was missing some first-choice players or were tired after a long year, France have beaten the No 1 ranked side on the planet so there’s no need to spare the bubbly.
Had this Test been played at the same venue in June, the Boks would have won comfortably. They underperformed at the collisions and as Victor Matfield admitted after the game, they were one second behind the French forwards to the breakdown. Ryan Kankowski told keo.co.za ‘the French caught us napping’ in this area, but given it was always going to be a slugfest on the deck, you have to question the Boks’ endurance.
France played with heart, but with very little guile. Their attack was limited and their forward surges were at times helped by a limp South African defensive effort. The decision-making in the backs was poor and Marc Lievremont was 100% correct when he said they should have scored more than the solitary try.
You have to give the Boks credit for defending like demons in the second half, Heinrich Brussow making some try-saving steals in his own 22. But the damage was done in the first half when it took the Boks a full quarter to realise they couldn’t allow the French so much forward momentum. Kankowski was especially guilty of missing first-time tackles, while the normally dependable Schalk Burger was bounced on several occasions.
Fears of a midfield malady materialised with the French targeting Adi Jacobs’ channel. The entire backline suffered as a result, and had the French attack been on song, the scoreline may have embarrassed the much-fancied visitors.
This game highlighted the importance of a specialist No 12, and why Jacobs is not even a contender for the vital position. That the Boks even used him on the crash ball was ludicrous, as the French stopped him dead and subsequently pilfered possession on at least three occasions.
Kankowski struggled to make an impact as a ball-carrier, and perhaps it’s time for Danie Rossouw to be reinstated in a position where he helped the Boks to World Cup glory. Rossouw may find himself in the back row mix anyway, with Burger likely to miss the next match through injury.
It’s difficult to say where the Boks went wrong in preparing for this clash. Perhaps Peter de Villiers should have left his star players at home to rest and toured with a largely inexperienced group. People would then understand that results were secondary to player development.
Instead, France continue to have the wood over South Africa in their own country. It was a game the Boks aimed to win with their best players, but it was a game they could never win if the French turned on the physicality.
How the Boks can improve on Friday’s performance is problematic given they’ll be up against a fiesty Italy next week and the Six Nations champions the week after. With Martin Castrogiovanni spearheading the Italian scrum, the Boks will be under pressure while the Irish will take heart from France’s showing in Toulouse.
South Africa won’t be any fresher when they get Dublin, unless De Villiers decides to rest his first string for the game in Udine. The Ireland fixture is ideal for the hosts, as Brian O’Driscoll and company may fancy a spot of revenge over a tired version of the team that beat the British & Irish Lions in June.
By Jon Cardinelli, in Toulouse