There is such goodwill towards Lions and Springbok captain Warren Whiteley that it simply has to be rewarded with success against the French.
Everyone associated with South African rugby wants Whiteley to succeed. Coaches from different franchises have endorsed Whiteley’s appointment as the new Springbok leader.
Players from other franchises have seconded the choice of Whiteley and former Springbok captains, led by last season’s man in charge Adrian Strauss, have been unanimous that Whiteley is the right man for the job.
So often the choice of the Springbok captain divides South African rugby. Whiteley certainly adds to a supportive unification of sorts.
And it’s a needed one for Springbok coach Allister Coetzee after the horror of 2016, in which the Springboks won just four of 12 Test matches.
Whiteley’s Lions have been the dominant South African Super Rugby franchise for the last two years, and Whiteley has been influential in the success of the Lions.
Coetzee, a year ago, didn’t acknowledge the Lions Super Rugby results or the pedigree of those players who made it to the final. He picked just two, Faf de Klerk and Lionel Mapoe, to start against Ireland.
The apology came emphatically last week when Coetzee didn’t pick either De Klerk nor Mapoe, but he did reward nine Lions players with national selection, including Whiteley as captain.
Coetzee has spoken of new beginnings and a new era. We heard those words a year ago but his selections would indicate new beginnings, as 15 of last year’s original 31 were not selected.
Coetzee has selected just three French-based South African players and there appears general consensus among so many that more weren’t considered because of a supposed lack of conditioning.
I’ve written it often and will continue to argue the contrary because if it was indeed the case then what does it say of the challenge of France next month? Their entire squad would then lack the conditioning for Test rugby.
The Springboks will beat France but not because of superior conditioning. The French historically don’t travel well and they don’t easily win three-match Test series away from home. Their weakness is more mental than physical.
The French squad will be disjointed when they arrive in South Africa, as players from Top 14 finalists Clermont and Toulon won’t be selected for the first Test. They will be integrated into the Test squad for the last two matches.
There is no excuse for Coetzee and the expectation has to be of a three-nil triumph against a team ranked even lower than the Springboks.
The French are eighth in the world and the measurement of Coetzee in 2017 should never be of success against teams ranked below the Springboks.
The greater challenge will be in the Rugby Championship.
Coetzee’s partnership with specialist consultant Brendan Venter is expected to be short-term, unless Venter opts out of assisting the Italian national team.
Venter can no longer work with both teams post the French series because both teams have been drawn with the All Blacks for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
He has to make a choice – and I sincerely hope there is a way to accommodate him in the South African set-up.
The Springboks – like South African Rugby generally – needs as much rugby intellectual capital working with the Springboks, as opposed to with the opposition.
Coetzee, who gets the rare luxury of a fresh start in 2017, can’t blame forced transformation on any hiccup or stumble against the French. This is a squad dominated by white players, but I do expect greater representation in the Rugby Championship.
The Boks, regardless of the squad identity, should not lose at home to France, but should doesn’t always translate to won’t.
Still, there has to be enough belief in the quality of the Boks to back three successive wins against the French.
There also has to be a constant reminder that the French are ranked eighth, just like the Lions on Sunday afternoon at Ellis Park reminded everyone of the difference in class between South Africa’s best and bravest Super Rugby sides.
The Kings have won many friends in 2017 because of their flamboyance on attack, but the recognition of this free-spirited approach had to be tempered with the reality of the strength of the Kings, who are closer to 18 than eight in ranking this season’s Super Rugby participants.
The Lions, despite playing the second half with 14 against 15, dismantled the Kings and kept alive their prospects of finishing the combined conferences as the leading team.
The Kings, the people’s favourite, had many trumpeting a handful of their players as Springboks based on four competition wins, but the Lions win was a sobering statement to counter such intoxicating thoughts.
The best team in South Africa played like the best team should in whipping the Kings and the expectation has to be that the Springboks produce performances of similar authority and vintage in dispatching the French.
Whiteley, the king of those imposing Lions, must be given a similar platform at national level to roar because I’d back the Lions Super Rugby side to beat the French national team three-nil in a series played in South Africa.
*This article first appeared in Business Day Newspaper