Cape Town – Another thoroughly earthy performance from the French pack at the weekend dished out a stark reminder that they won’t be Springbok easy-beats in the key June Tests on our soil.
The three encounters are rumoured to simultaneously serve as last-chance saloon for Bok head coach Allister Coetzee – if he even gets that far – and it is at least becoming more and more apparent that simply beating Les Bleus in the series, whether in style or not, will go down as a step back in the right direction for the beleaguered national team.
France rumbled their way to a hard-fought 22-16 Paris triumph over gritty Scotland on Saturday, just a week after they had been unfortunate to surrender late to Eddie Jones’s presently all-conquering England at Twickenham.
If anything, they confirmed that last week was no fluke: the French boast physicality all over the park, even if their grunt-obsessed approach wouldn’t necessarily thrill fleet-footed maestros of old like Serge Blanco or Philippe Sella.
But the really striking feature of both their Six Nations 2017 appearances thus far has been the brawny, cohesive quality of their pack – particularly in the driving-maul and general collision departments.
Bok eights traditionally pride themselves on physical domination, but they lost a fair chunk of their bragging rights in that area during last season’s annus horribilis … sometimes you could almost hear the sound of bubbles bursting or individual egos being dented along the way.
In short, South Africa will have to steel themselves up fast in the forward division if they are to find a way around a team clearly in the throes of an encouraging, collective regroup.
There have been few signs of true X-factor from the French in terms of individual genius or creativity, and the Boks may yet be able to have their measure – particularly in the two Highveld Tests at Loftus (the first) and Ellis Park (third) – for athleticism and pace about the park.
The Springboks’ main enforcer type, Eben Etzebeth – incidentally, looking as though he has muscled up even more in his upper body during a decent off-season period for him – is a no-frills character at close quarters, yet also renowned for his startling acceleration and speed in open play.
But many Test matches are still won in areas where the proverbial sun doesn’t shine, and all signs right now point to this industrial French team spiritedly dragging the Boks into an uncompromising arm-wrestle in the series.
Make no mistake, France bossed the game against Scotland, and it was more a testament to the visitors’ courage under bombardment than anything else that they sneaked a losing bonus point.
There was something uncannily similar to the damage inflicted by zealous Bok packs of the Bakkies Botha era that saw Scottish players succumb to knocks almost dime-a-dozen: four of their players were forced off the Stade de France field prematurely, often due to scars inflicted by the remorseless French eight.
Once again No 8 Louis Picamoles, one of the standout players of the first two rounds of the Six Nations, led the charge.
In fairness to his opposite number, SA-born Josh Strauss, the mega-bearded former Golden Lions favourite determinedly wasn’t a shrinking violet in his awkward, direct battle with Picamoles.
But if the Boks are to counter the robust eighthman’s menace, it is almost impossible not to suspect that one man scantily used in 2016, Duane Vermeulen, will have to be a major “fight fire with fire” consideration anew.
Apart from having the necessary vital statistics in bodily terms (116kg, 1.93kg) to almost identically match Northampton’s Picamoles, the ex-Stormers stalwart will know plenty about the French forwards generally through his stationing in the Top 14 competition with Toulon, who he leads into battle.
There are nagging whispers that Vermeulen may yet be coaxed back into particularly enthusiastic international mode by being offered the vacant captaincy of the Boks, although his overseas club employment naturally remains a thorny issue.
Similarly, if the French pack is to be kept at bay – some of their scrummaging was positively potent against a Scots eight clearly missing their injured tighthead anchorman WP Nel – someone like Montpellier’s Bismarck du Plessis, another who is as tough as they come, also offers attractive fresh credentials at hooker.
It is a problem area for South Africa as things stand, given Adriaan Strauss’s Test retirement and only modest personal form anyway last year, and neither of Malcolm Marx or Bongi Mbonambi looks ready yet to compellingly grab the baton at No 2 in green and gold, despite potential in each case.
Marx has the rugged physical attributes for the job, but his lineout throwing is still scratchy, at best, whilst mobile, Stormers-based Mbonambi lacks a bit in the kilos department for the rigours of blue-chip Test matches.
For the record, although little should be read into a pre-season friendly played in stifling February heat at Newlands, Mbonambi also struggled to find his jumpers in the rather wild and woolly 57-40 victory over the Lions on Saturday.
Etzebeth, Du Plessis, Vermeulen … you just fancy, even at this long range, that all three surnames will be necessary presences in the engine room if the Boks are not to take backward steps to France in the first Tests of the 2017 season.
The unusually high-stakes series will be no place for rookies.
Coetzee will, or should, know it …
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