The Springbok team that starts against France will look decidedly different to the one that lost to Ireland in Cape Town a year ago, with only five of the XV surviving.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, a year ago, didn’t rate the Lions Super Rugby players. He choose only two in his starting XV but a chastened Coetzee could pick as many as 10 Lions in the run on XV in Pretoria next Saturday.
Coetzee’s failure to acknowledge the pedigree of the Lions players contributed to a horror season in which the Boks won just four from 12 Tests.
A year on and Coetzee can only be a winner in trusting the core of the Lions to beat France. The Bok coach simply has to let new Springbok captain Warren Whiteley and the Lions dominated Boks do it the Lions way. At least in the opening two Tests.
Coetzee would have had a fortnight with his squad, which means the opening Test is more a management job than a coaching exercise.
Coetzee’s philosophy, aligned to coaching consultant Brendan Venter’s, hopefully will bear fruition in the course of the international season. But for now, it’s a matter of winning and doing it with minimal fuss
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel or to risk losing the first Test through indecision and unfamiliarity.
Go Lions for the first Test. Go Lions for the second Test. And with the series won, then start the integration of the ideal team Coetzee may have in his head.
The Bok coach would have had the squad for a month and he would have been able to add substance to the Springbok way for 2017.
Coetzee, hopefully, will be more appreciative of all the good that comes out of the Lions Super Rugby set-up. Hopefully his ego will allow Whiteley to lead and the Lions players to roar as they do in Super Rugby. The rest of the match day squad, like Coetzee, would be the beneficiaries of feeding off the confidence of the Lions.
Top 14 commitments will limit Duane Vermeulen’s influence in the opening Test. Vermeulen, like seven of the French squad, will play in this weekend’s Top 14 final. It is unlikely any of those French internationals will play in Pretoria and Vermeulen, at best, will probably get the last 30 minutes.
Montpellier’s Frans Steyn, having linked up with the squad, must be the first choice inside centre.
Vermeulen and Steyn will also add value to the preparations because of their long association with the French domestic game. Vermeulen leads Toulon and Steyn has spent six years playing for Racing 92 and Montpellier respectively.
Coetzee would also have had the option to chat to former Montpellier and 2007 Springbok World Cup-winning coach Jake White about the nuances of the French challenge. White has spent the last three seasons coaching Montpellier, and Coetzee (the Springbok assistant to White between 2004 and 2007) could only benefit from a lengthy session with White.
The Boks will be better prepared than a year ago and the result will also be an improvement on last season’s first up defeat against Ireland in Cape Town.
The Lions players are running hot at the moment and there’s an old adage in sport that you can never go wrong when picking a player whose form is hot.
If Coetzee applies this adage expect to see Lions fullback Andries Coetzee, scrumhalf Ross Cronje and tighthead prop Ruan Dreyer to make their respective Test debuts.
Coetzee is the only specialist fullback in the squad and I’d start him ahead of Bulls utility back Jesse Kriel.
Cronje is the obvious scrumhalf selection, given Whiteley will be at No 8 and Elton Jantjies will be at No 10. The trio have been central to the Lions Super Rugby renaissance in the last three years.
Dreyer is also the form tighthead and his combination with Lions hooker Malcolm Marx should give him the edge over regular Bok prop Frans Malherbe.
I’d also start Mapoe ahead of Jan Serfontein and (Jesse) Kriel at outside centre. His original omission from the Bok squad was a surprise.
Given the players at Coetzee’s training camp and with consideration to the late arrivals of Francois Hougaard and Vermeulen, this is the starting XV I’d pick to front and beat the French in Pretoria:
Keo’s starting Bok XV (v France): Andries Coetzee (Lions), Dillyn Leyds (Stormers), Lionel Mapoe (Lions), Frans Steyn (Montpellier), Courtnall Skosan (Lions), Elton Jantjies (Lions), Ross Cronje (Lions), Warren Whiteley (Lions, captain), Siya Kolisi (Stormers), Jaco Kriel (Lions), Franco Mostert (Lions), Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), Ruan Dreyer (Lions), Malcolm Marx (Lions) and Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira (Sharks).
This starting XV would not be the one I envisage starting the Rugby Championship, but for now it’s loaded with Lions and it’s got enough to knock over the French.
There are four survivors from the starting XV that lost to Ireland in Cape Town in Coetzee’s first ever Bok run on XV. They are Mapoe, lock Etzebeth, flank Kolisi and prop Mtawarira.
Mtawarira and Etzebeth were Coetzee’s most consistent selections in 2016.
Here’s how his team (versus Ireland) looked a year ago: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Tendai Mtawarira
You tell me which is stronger?