The French brought out the heavy artillery and something approaching their A-game, but the result was depressingly familiar – another comfortable win for the Springboks.
In the build-up to this game, talk was that the French could only be stronger after changing eight players in their team and would seek to be physical.
But a performance big on physicality, defence and composure not seen last year by Allister Coetzee’s men meant not only did they win the game, they won the three-match series against the visitors with a game to spare.
The game had flanker Siya Kolisi’s fingerprints all over it in a monstrous performance not seen in a while from a player in a green and gold jersey.
Kolisi made two try-scoring passes; tackled everything that moved; was all over the ball on the ground like a cheap suit; and still found time to score an intercept try of his own in a performance for the ages.
The irony was that the French, whose physicality at Loftus Versfeld was apparently described as “laughable” by their wily coach Guy Novès, had actually brought the requisite noise in the early collisions.
A counter-ruck inside their own half in the third minute led to a try for fullback Scott Spedding on his return to King’s Park after nine years, while a rampaging run in the by number eight Louis Picamoles meant would-be tackler Oupa Mohojé was stretchered off inside the first quarter with suspected concussion.
The hallmark of that try, converted by scrum half Baptiste Serin, was said heavy metal, a couple of venomous thrusts by winger Virimi Vakatawa, patience with ball in hand and good decision-making on the ball.
But just as the 41 806 people in the stadium started sounding becalmed by the French resistance, the hosts – led by their avenging angel Kolisi – responded with a combination of inventiveness and brutality.
A case in point was their first try, scored by centre Jan Serfontein.
The score had its origins in an Eben Etzebeth line-out take, with Kolisi making the decisive inside pass for Serfontein.
But the impressive thing about it was that the Boks looked like they knew what they were doing in setting it up, with screens running in front of the intended ball carriers to fix the defence.
Then came the testosterone-fuelled response, which showed itself in Kolisi, hooker Malcolm Marx and Etzebeth’s carrying, with the former two and Serfontein doing the bulk of the thieving of the ball over the ground.
In the meantime, prop Beast Mtawarira and Rabah Slimani waged their own private war in the scrums, the ledger reading “won some, lost some” for both, while captain Warren Whiteley gave something approaching a clinic in line-out play throughout the game.
When the French did muster the reserves to hit back, as was the case early in the second half, the Bok defence was not found wanting, keeping the French out for a period of five minutes from the 50th minute.
A mark of the desire defensively within this team was that wee Ross Cronjé finished it all off with a lunging tackle on debutant Damian Penaud, who would have scored were it not for the scrum half’s desperation.
Other Bok players who tried to muscle in on the Kolisi show were Serfontein, Marx and fly half Elton Jantjies.
The retiring Serfontein wasn’t flashy, but he did do the right thing at the right time; the blockbuster Marx continues in explosive vein in contact, adding accurate line-out throwing and ball pilfering to his wrecking ball ways; and Jantjies continued with his less mercury, more substance game.
SA – Tries: Jan Serfontein, Siya Kolisi, Coenie Oosthuizen, Elton Jantjies;
Conversions: Jantjies (4)
Penalty: Jantjies (3)
France – Tries: Scott Spedding, Damian Penaud;
Conversion: Baptiste Serin;
Penalty: François Trinh-Duc