While France have come to South Africa with a physical reputation, they’ll struggle to match the Springboks for tactical intelligence.
Over the past year, South Africa has dominated world rugby. They’ve dished out their characteristic brand of belligerence, but behind the brawn has been an intelligence that’s separated them from the usual contenders.
Their superior kicking game was credited for a Tri-Nations victory in 2009, an aspect that was prominent in the Bulls’ back-to-back Super 14 titles. They’ve adjusted to the new breakdown interpretations, in some cases to the point where they’re able to counter them on defence, and have ridden that momentum into the 2010 Test season.
Former Bok prop Cobus Visagie has noted the evolution and said supporters shouldn’t be too worried about Saturday’s Test against France. Having played much of his rugby in the northern hemisphere for English club Saracens, he’s well aware of the France’s physicality, but at the same time he believes the Boks have no tactical match.
‘They played well in the second half against Wales, combining a good kicking game with direct rugby. That is how they beat the Welsh, and I suspect that is how they’ll beat the French this Saturday,’ Visagie told keo.co.za.
And yet, the stats suggest there’s no need to be confident. The Boks haven’t beaten France since 2005 and were badly beaten at the breakdown in the most recent match in Toulouse.
Visagie, however, feels the perception that the South Africa struggle against France is inaccurate and that a few poor results shouldn’t act as an inhibitor.
‘You look at the kind of rugby Clermont, Toulouse and Biarritz play, and you can understand why the national side enjoys that direct brand of rugby,’ Visagie said. ‘It’s what they’re used to and why they’ve enjoyed some success against the Boks in the past.
‘But I don’t think South Africa have struggled against France. Go back and look at those losses and you will note some important things like when the games were played and at what stage of South Africa’s evolution they were played.’
Referee Bryce Lawrence will determine the flow of the game at Newlands, and Visagie pointed out that an experienced Bok unit has what it takes to make the necessary adjustments.
‘The general way the game is going has favoured the South Africans. France have been the best northern hemisphere team in terms of adapting to the ELVs, but the Boks will have an advantage having excelled under the new law interpretations in the Super 14.
‘From what I’ve seen in the Super 14, the French can expect a Storming Bull at Newlands. The Boks are blessed with players who have the rugby knowledge to adjust to their necessary game plan. A lot will depend on how the ref calls the breakdown contest, but you’d back the Boks to adjust.
‘If the ref allows for a contest at the ruck, South Africa have the defence to withstand a counter-attack. If the ref is strict in his application of the interpretation and favours the attacking side going forward, then South Africa have the ball-carriers to make the momentum count.
‘I don’t think it matters who the Boks play. It’s more about getting what they do right.’
The French-based duo of Frans Steyn and Joe van Niekerk are no longer in the Bok picture, as coach Peter de Villiers believes their average showings in Cardiff are down to their extended exposure to the sub-standard Top 14. The France management team has since come out with a counter-statement, as they believe the Top 14 is as good as the Super 14.
Visagie, however, has sided with De Villiers on this point.
‘The quality of this past Super 14 was exceptional,’ he said, ‘and there’s been a lot more emphasis on forward play. The forwards have been criticised in the past, but we’ve seen how the dynamics have changed.
‘The forwards are crucial to the running and kicking game. In the Top 14, however, there’s a lot more senseless kicking than there is in the Super 14.’
One area where the Boks need to improve is at scrum time, as seen by the inconsistent showing in Cardiff. De Villiers blamed referee Alan Lewis for harbouring preconceived ideas about the Bok front row, and while Visagie agrees to an extent, he feels the South Africans must learn from that experience.
‘The ref was well prepared for the Boks last week, and I’m sure [Bok forwards coach] Gary Gold has been working with the guys to ensure they get the timing right and avoid the early engage.
‘Overall, I don’t think there are big problems with the scrum. John Smit is back in his preferred position of hooker, and when you comment on the return of CJ van der Linde and BJ Botha, you have to ask the question: “Who else is there?”
‘Gurthro Steenkamp has played well this season and really put the Stormers under pressure in the Super 14 final. He should do well this weekend.’
Visagie is employed as Saracens’ commercial director, but is also involved with the Springbok Supporters Club in the United Kingdom. He’s presently in Cape Town to see how the the South African arm of the club runs, and will take that information back to England.
‘It’s about continuing to build the brand of the Boks, a brand that has become synonymous with South Africa,’ he said. ‘There is a large South African community overseas that has got behind Saracens. We saw that when the Boks played Saracens in front of 40 000 people at Wembley last November.
‘I’m here to see how the Boktown is run, because we are hoping to provide the same services for South African supporters living abroad.’
By Jon Cardinelli