Preview: Springboks vs France analyses the key match-ups and picks a winner at Newlands.

Some sports fans may have better things to do this weekend, like watch football. Bafana Bafana kick off the 2010 tournament this afternoon while France play Uruguay later tonight. Saturday’s rugby Test at Newlands was moved forward so as not to clash with the Argentina vs Nigeria fixture; a change in schedule that tells you all you need to know about priorities. For the next month, football, in the hearts and minds of all South Africans, is king.

The monarchy acknowledged, there’s still the small matter of a Test match. Make no mistake, this clash will be brutal and absorbing, and if the Boks can implement their game plan, Newlands could witness an end to a five-year losing streak.

I called a Bok win ahead of last November’s clash in Toulouse. It was a rookie mistake, as I underestimated a French team galvanised by their countrymen. The Boks were out of puff following a long season. Winning the Super 14, the British & Irish Lions series and the Tri-Nations clearly took its toll. Throw in anthem anarchist Ras Dumisani, and you could say the Boks did well to lose by just seven points.

But what of this week’s clash? The Boks have a point to prove. When they lose to the Australasians, they’re usually outsmarted, but what happened in Toulouse amounted to an uncensored hiding. South Africa’s pride has taken a knock, and despite John Smit’s claims to the contrary, they must be hungry for revenge. They need to win this weekend and bury their French bogey.

The scrum was inconsistent in Cardiff and will take some more time to adjust in Cape Town. Gurthro Steenkamp has been a standout for the Bulls this season, but in playing alongside Smit and BJ Botha, it may take a while to settle. Steenkamp will also have to deal with Nicolas Mas, the only French front-row survivor from the Test in Toulouse.

Fortunately for the Boks, the French should be rusty given they haven’t played as a unit for three months. Coach Marc Lievremont has left Sebastien Chabal at home while Imanol Harinordoquy is out injured, which robs the Tricolores of two immensely physical players.

Interestingly, Lievremont has also opted to start the uncapped Wenceslas Lauret in a game of this magnitude, explaining that Lauret is more mobile than the Louis Picamoles. It’s a selection the Boks will secretly relish.

Francois Louw and Schalk Burger enjoyed great success in the Super 14 as a combination, while the new law interpretations are tailor-made for Pierre Spies’ attacking strengths. If the Bok tight-five outmuscle the French, the back row will provide the necessary momentum and ensure the Bok backline is brought into the game. In 2009, the Boks’ failure upfront diminished the threat of their backline attack. That defeat at the collisions also upset their normally reliable defence.

It’s concerning to think Ricky Januarie could be the Boks’ No 1 scrumhalf in 2010 with Fourie du Preez sidelined with injury. For this particular Test, however, his physicality will be a plus, and a strong forwards showing will also ensure his slow service doesn’t cost the Boks momentum.

The French will miss Harinordoquy at the lineout, as even without Bakkies Botha the Boks boast the best combination in the business. Smit reunites with Victor Matfield and Spies, and the Newlands faithful can expect a few rolling mauls early on.

Morne Steyn struggled on the 2009 end-of-year tour when his forwards took a pounding, and will need his heavies to front if he’s going to bring the Boks’ brutish midfielders into the game. No doubt the Bulls pivot will play for field position early on, but if he receives quality ball, Wynand Olivier and Jaque Fourie have the ability to smash through defensive lines.

Olivier has been in particularly good nick this year, and his many strengths will keep the defence guessing. After bulking up in the off-season, he’s been used to breach the advantage line, but his great pass and underrated vision has also led to linebreaks. While everybody may be clamouring for the regular inclusion of Juan de Jongh, it must be remembered that South Africa has an important player with the experience to complement his skill-set.

The use of the bench will be important, as neither team can afford to drop their intensity in the final 20 minutes. It’s during this period, however, where the Boks will break away. The French will try to match the hosts for speed and intensity early on, but won’t be able to sustain that effort in the second half.

Prediction: Boks by 7

Springboks – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Ricky Januarie, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit, 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Dewald Potgieter, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Jean de Villiers.

France – 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 David Marty, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Aurelien Rougerie, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Romain Millo-Chluski, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Subs: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Jean Baptiste Poux, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Dimitri Yachvili, 21 David Skrela, 22 Marc Andreu.

By Jon Cardinelli