France burst Springboks' bubble
November 13, 2009
France's Damien Traille and Julien Dupuy celebrate as South Africa's JP Pietersen trudges off the field © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Schalk Burger Vincent Clerc Thierry Dusautoir Cedric Heymans Marc Lievremont Morne Steyn
South Africa's bruising 2009 campaign is finally starting to take its toll.
A gruelling and sometimes eye-watering three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions ended in victory earlier this year and an equally demanding Tri-Nations also ended in glory but the battle-weary Springboks are now running out of steam.
The warning signs were there last week when Premiership side Leicester scored an upset victory in what was supposed to be a simple warm-up for the bigger tests to come. A promising Springboks line-up was made to look ordinary by a club side - albeit a rather good one.
The Tigers' pack bossed their rivals and the world champions looked surprisingly wobbly at the set-piece. If Springboks assistant coach Dick Muir had cause for concern following their last game then that headache just got a whole lot worse after this Friday 13th horror show that extends their French hoodoo. Leicester's victory, and more importantly the manner in which they achieved it, was obviously not lost on France coach Marc Lievremont who upped the ante by bolstering his line-up for their first meeting with the Springboks in three years.
Les Bleus rewarded their coach with a dominant display to blow the cracks in the Springboks' armoury wide open. Already basking in the plaudits of a victory over the All Blacks on Kiwi soil this summer, this latest result will serve to endorse Lievremont's credentials just a few short months after he fielded calls for his head. The Six Nations' also-rans now look like true world beaters with increasingly influential captain Thierry Dusautoir at the helm.
The French pack were up for this encounter and celebrated every small victory, be it at the lineout, scrum or in the loose, with such gusto it brought a smile to the face of Springboks skipper John Smit - but he was not laughing come the final whistle.
France's enthusiasm and work rate did little to dent the Springboks machine in the early stages but when they finally straightened their lines they soon found the belief to carve their opponents open. With that confidence came the trademark free-flowing passing game that has won France so many fans over the years with Maxime Mermoz and Yann David proving a winning combination in midfield. And Lievremont appears to have a wealth of talent at his disposal with the likes of David Marty, Sebastien Chabal and Maxime Medard making an impact from the bench in Toulouse.
It was up front where the game was won with France dismantling a bewildered South African scrum time and time again as belief charged through their veins. The legendary Springbok lineout also creaked repeatedly and was not the indestructible machine we have become accustomed to. At the breakdown, the home side's desire was rewarded with more success, stealing priceless turnovers to keep the Boks on the back foot and in contact France's superiority cranked up the pressure on the visitors and forced countless mistakes.
The mis-firing Springboks were not allowed to settle and lost their cool on more than one occasion - frustrated by their hungrier hosts and by their own shortcomings. Fly-half Morne Steyn offered hope to his rivals that he is not super-human with a rare miss with the boot and clumsy challenge that saw him sent to the bin. But team-mate Heinrich Brussow's star continues to rise after another excellent display to underline his reputation as one of the best opensides in the game.
South Africa must now pick up the pieces starting with a testing encounter for their midweek side against Premiership high-fliers Saracens at Wembley. Coach Peter de Villiers faces arguably the toughest test of his tenure in the coming weeks with a showdown against Six Nations champions Ireland looming large on the horizon. Another midweek mauling would go a long way to taking some of the gloss of an otherwise standout year but you can guarantee that he will rest his big names against Sarries and Italy next weekend in the hope of securing an all-is-forgiven win in Dublin.
France on the other hand will now relish their re-match with All Blacks in Marseille. The Stade Velodrome fixture was already vying for top billing amidst this month's feast of international rugby and this latest result has only whetted the appetite more. A French side in full pomp truly is a site to behold - but as ever with them the key question is whether they can find the consistency to make them serious challengers for the game's biggest prize and the Springboks' No.1 ranking.