Springbok coach Allister Coetzee has done everything I
asked for - which was to load the team with Lions Super Rugby players and to
pick combinations where possible.
READ: Four debutants in Springbok side to face France
I’d back the in-form Lions Super rugby side to beat
the French in Saturday’s opening Test and feel equally comfortable the
Lions-dominated Springboks will be too good for the tourists.
The biggest challenge from the French will come in the
second Test, but they will be underdone in the first Test. Their coach and nine
of their players only arrived in South Africa earlier this week and they will
be up against a team whose core have played in the same Super Rugby side for
the last four months.
Coetzee has been more practical in his second year
first-up selection than he was a year ago against Ireland in Cape Town.
There is general consensus, among fans and critics,
that Coetzee has primarily rewarded Super Rugby form. The exception would
be Bulls midfielders Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel.
Individually both have huge talent and were dominant
as juniors, but as a Test duo they are as green as the many international
debutants for Saturday.
Injury has curtailed the midfield options but the
on-field presence of Frans Steyn (in the last 30-40 minutes) will give the
midfield greater presence. It may also allow for a reshuffle, which sees
Serfontein moved to outside centre and Kriel given game time at fullback.
I think fullback is Kriel’s best position and he has
previously struggled with his defensive organisation as a Test midfielder. But
this is a new international season and everyone starts afresh.
The key to any Springbok success is if the Lions
players are allowed to play the Lions way. If so, I see them winning fairly
comfortably in Pretoria.
It’s a big series for Elton Jantjies who in five years
has only started seven of his 11 Tests. Jantjies, in the past few seasons, has
been the standout South African flyhalf in Super Rugby but invariably has not
transferred that form to the Springboks.
It could be a case of him just not being good enough
or it could be that he has never been given the responsibility to take charge
as the national team’s general.
If Coetzee has instilled a sense of trust in him, we
could finally see the best of Jantjies as a Test player. There will - and
should not - be no excuses for Jantjies post this French series because every
selection for the first Test complements and protects him. Coetzee has given
Jantjies his Super Rugby halfback partner in Ross Cronje, as well as the bulk
of the Lions team, which includes captain Warren Whiteley as the man in charge
of the Boks.
Everything has been fashioned, in selection,
environment and (hopefully) style of play to make Jantjies succeed. He now has
to show he has the mental strength to own the Test arena as he has done so
often domestically and in Super Rugby.
The Lions factor is the cause of my optimism, but I can
only imagine Jaco Kriel’s injury woes have not sufficiently settled. Otherwise
why leave him out?
It’s a squad representative of form but it’s also one
that has question marks around the loose trio make up and also the back three,
as a unit.
The tight five is strong and Coetzee has selected
wisely in the front row and among his starting locks. Whiteley, as captain, was
always going to be the No 8 but there will be debate as to whether the
loose-trio, as a combination, is potent or merely present.
Individually the loose-forwards are all good players
but it’s an untried combination.
The same applies to the back three and all three
players selected have warranted inclusion on Super Rugby form, which doesn’t
necessarily mean they’ll prove good enough at Test level.
I sincerely hope the side can gel and can excite the
South African public with a winning start and one that is easy on the eye.
Springboks’ assistant coach Johann van Graan earlier
in the week cautioned not to expect a perfect Bok performance. Relax Johann,
there never is a perfect performance but the public will be demanding a winning
The Boks are at home in Pretoria. That has to be worth
five points. The cohesion and familiarity of those Lions players has to be
worth another five points and the second half impact of veterans Francois
Hougaard and (Frans) Steyn is also another three points.
There it is then, the Boks to win by 13 points.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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