All the pressure is on Allister Coetzee’s Springboks to get a wining result in Saturday’s first Test against France – and rightly so.
Coetzee’s Springboks lost seven of their last eight Tests in 2016 and the Bok coach surely knows that defeat against France would see him spoken of in the past tense as a Springbok coach.
I can’t see it happening. At least I’d be stunned if the French, somehow, beat the Springboks in Pretoria. A few weeks ago I wrote of a three-nil Springbok series triumph. Nothing in the interim has changed my view.
There has been ongoing debate in the last few years as to the influence of the overseas-based Springboks. I’ve always been of the view that good enough should be good enough, regardless of the player’s age or where he is based.
There has been strong opposition to this view, with an overwhelming majority in South Africa of the belief that any player who takes up a lucrative overseas club contract should be punished through non-selection for the Springboks.
I have never agreed with this sentiment and never will, but to those who vehemently dismiss the value of overseas based players the first Test against France will be significant because Coetzee, when he names his first run on XV for 2017, it is likely to include only local based Super Rugby players.
French based veteran Frans Steyn and Francois Hougaard, who plays in England, are probable substitute selections. Ditto Steven Kitshoff, who played in France this past year but has permanently returned to South Africa.
Toulon captain Duane Vermeulen would also have been named in the match 23 but injury in the Top 14 final has ruled him out of the French series. It’s a big blow to the Springboks and not one that should be underestimated. Vermeulen was influential and prominent in the French domestic final and his physicality will be missed.
The Cheetahs’ Oupa Mohoje is likely to be given the No 7 jersey that would have been Vermeulen’s in the series, with Siya Kolisi and Warren Whitely expected to complete the loose-trio.
It’s not a back row that collectively looks world class but it’s one that could change significantly as the international season unfolds.
I think the Bok team that plays France in Pretoria will look different to the one that plays in the Rugby Championship but it should still have the necessary cohesion to get the series off to a winning start.
Coetzee has invested in the core of the Lions Super Rugby team against a French line-up whose preparations were disrupted because of the absence of nine players involved in the Top 14 final. Their coach Guy Noves also only joined the squad in South Africa earlier in the week.
The French don’t make a habit of winning Test series abroad. They are more famous for poxing one-off wins, especially against the Springboks in South Africa.
The Springboks have a 48 percent win percentage against the French in South Africa, with 10 wins, six draws and five defeats in 21 starts.
France must be respected, especially from a Bok side whose 2016 performances don’t command respect.
Physically and talent-wise there isn’t much to separate the two teams but mentally there will be more question marks over the French psyche. Are they confident and strong enough mentally to win two Tests in the next three weekends? I’d say emphatically not.
The French will be tough, but they won’t be victorious.
The Springboks simply have to win because Coetzee and many in the current squad would not survive a second successive year of disastrous results.
There can also be no excuses for Coetzee or his Springboks in 2017. Coetzee has said that the build-up has been excellent. He has had three training camps with the national squad during Super Rugby and spent a week with the squad in Plettenberg Bay.
The coach has publicly stated he is better prepared than was the case a year ago and that his support staff is more experienced. He has also spoken of the team dynamic and the fact that there has been such an emphasis on local-based players.
Coetzee, in the past two weeks, has been all smiles, but it needs the Springboks to beat France in Pretoria before a disillusioned South African rugby public starts to share that smile.
*This col first appeared in Business Day Newspaper