CAPE TOWN – The Springboks head into the first test of 2017 desperate for any sort of victory. Allister Coetzee’s charges finished a horrific 2016 season — the Boks’ worst of the professional era — with four straight losses. A defeat to France in Pretoria on Saturday would stretch their losing streak to five. The Boks have not lost five tests in a row since 2006.
Coetzee has spoken about “moving on” after a 2016 season that witnessed a total of eight losses in 12 tests. But it’s hard to forget just how poorly the Boks fared last year.
The results alone tell a story: defeats against Ireland (at home) and Argentina (away); and record losses to the All Blacks (home) and Wales. The Boks suffered their first loss to England in 10 years when they went down to Eddie Jones’s side at Twickenham. The nadir of the nightmare, though, was the first-ever loss to lowly Italy, in Florence.
More than six months have passed since the Boks’ last match of 2016 — against Wales, in Cardiff. Since then, Coetzee has made some significant changes to his backroom staff — the appointment of defence coach Brendan Venter chief among those — and to his playing squad. Following Adriaan Strauss’s retirement from test rugby, Coetzee has opted for Lions No 8 Warren Whiteley as his new captain.
Many of the changes have been forced, though. The Boks will be without their first- and second-choice flyhalf options this June, as Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie have been ruled out of the three tests against France due to injuries. Loose forward Duane Vermeulen and centre Damian de Allende are not available for the Loftus test due to injury. Vermeulen played for Toulon in their losing French Top 14 final against Clermont on Sunday and was to join the Boks only this week.
It may seem that SA rugby has entered a new era. Yet, that four-game losing streak will be in the back of the coaches’ and players’ minds. The poor performances in 2016 resulted in the Boks dropping to seventh in the World Rugby rankings. That, in turn, contributed to their drawing the All Blacks (and Italy) in their pool at the 2019 World Cup.
France finished third in the 2017 Six Nations without playing a particularly convincing brand of rugby. Thanks to wins against Scotland, Italy and Wales, Les Bleus have moved up to sixth in the World Rugby rankings.
They could improve on that ranking if they win the series against SA.
Providing they address their shortcomings at the gainline and on defence, the Boks should fancy their chances of bouncing back. The French players are coming off a long domestic season in Europe. They may lack energy and motivation in the next three games.
But the French are notoriously unpredictable. Though they have won three of their past five tests against the Boks, their last win in SA was in 2006. Overall, France have recorded six wins, five draws, and 10 losses in this part of the world. France beat the Boks in a series in SA in 1993.
PHOTO: © AFP Do or Die for the Boks at Loftus