French scalp crucial ahead of RWC

Victor Matfield says beating France will give the Springboks a psychological boost ahead of the 2011 World Cup.

Saturday’s Test is being hyped as an opportunity for revenge. The Boks haven’t beaten France since June 2005, which was incidentally the last time the teams faced off in a two-Test series. Since then, France have had the better of the one-offs, winning in 2005 (in Paris), 2006 (in Cape Town) and 2009 (in Toulouse).

Like his locking partner Bakkies Botha, Matfield emerged from last year’s defeat battered and bloodied. The Bok pack was outmuscled, which doesn’t happen too often, even in defeat. There have been justified calls for revenge, even though in the grand scheme of things, a one-off Test doesn’t count for much.

Matfield challenged this line of thinking. He told an all-out forward assault that compromises the Bok structures could do the hosts more harm than good, and added that winning this Test could be more important than most people think.

South Africa won’t face France in their World Cup pool. However, they won’t want to meet France in the play-offs on the back of four successive defeats.

‘It’s very important that we win this Saturday,’ Matfield told this website. ‘They are right up there with the best in the world, and they should be competitive at the World Cup. Beating them now will ensure we take a mental edge into that tournament.’

The Bok vice-captain acknowledged the tourists’ physical threat, but feels the Boks’ experience and unity will circumvent the challenge.

‘They’ve enjoyed some success against us recently, but it’s not often that they beat us in South Africa. Our preparation has been good this week, right from the first practice. You could see the older guys taking charge and in general players were just slotting in to the way we want to play.

‘France will be fiery, but we believe we have what it takes to counter that. There’s talk of fatigue, and while we hope they are tired, we won’t count on it.’

Matfield spoke about the fierce breakdown contest and also hailed the French lineout as one of the best in the world. He also stressed that the omission of key players like Sebastien Chabal and Imanol Harinordoquy won’t detract from the visitors’ effort.

‘The thing about France is that they do the basics so well. Everyone talks about their flair, but it’s really their forwards you have to worry about.

‘They’ve got a good scrum and one of the best lineouts in the world. Imanol may be out with injury, but in Julien Bonnaire they have a player who’s just as experienced. I don’t think they’ll be weak at the tail of the lineout.’

With Botha still serving a suspension, Matfield will partner Danie Rossouw in the second row. During the second half, Rossouw may be replaced by another Bulls lock in Flip van der Merwe, a player who’s hoping to earn his first Test cap.

Coach Peter de Villiers said on Monday that Van der Merwe had been identified as a potential successor to Botha and Rossouw in the No 4 position. Matfield feels the youngster has what it takes to be successful at this level.

‘We weren’t quite sure of what to make of Flip when he first arrived at the Bulls last year,’ he said. ‘But he’s really impressed us with his work ethic, and when it comes to physicality, he’s like Bakkies. He loves to get stuck in.

‘We were a bit worried when we lost Bakkies but Flip has shown throughout the Super 14 what he can offer.’

The start to the international rugby season has been overshadowed by the build up to the Football World Cup. The Boks have been involved in the marketing of the competition, but Matfield said this hasn’t led to a loss of focus.

‘It’s a great thing for our country. The atmosphere and vuvuzelas are everywhere, even in our hotel. I remember the vuvuzelas in the semi-final and final of the Super 14 [at Orlando Stadium]. Those were two of the best weeks of my life.

‘The hype of the Football World Cup won’t make us lose focus. I’m sure there will be some French fans at Newlands this Saturday, who are here for the rugby and the football, but there should still be more Springbok supporters. We can draw on that energy.’

By Jon Cardinelli