A sparkling attacking display, as well as an uncompromising showing on defence allowed South Africa to run four tries past France, on their way to an emphatic 37-14 victory at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Springboks, coming off of a four-Test match losing streak, were looking to start the international year in the best possible fashion after a rather calamitous 2016. France, on the other hand, were looking to claim victory in this, the first Test, to give themselves a chance at recording a first series win over South Africa since 1993.
Loftus Versfeld hasn’t had much cause for celebration so far this year, but that surely changed on Saturday as Allister Coetzee’s charges produced a much-improved performance to record only his fifth win at the helm. The Boks dominated possession and territory in the opening exchanges, playing a very Lions-esque brand of rugby that saw them break the French line seemingly at will.
The message from coach Coetzee was clearly to play as expansively as quickly as possible, something certainly evident in the Boks’ eagerness to take quick taps and lineouts, with the wider channels undoubtedly their point-of-attack.
Elton Jantjies converted much of the early Bok pressure into points, as his two quick-fire penalties stretched the home side out to an early 6-0 lead. The French struggled to gain a foothold in the game, with any prolonged periods of possession quickly blunted by a clear lack of cohesiveness on attack – unsurprising considering the amount of changes Guy Novés was forced to make going into this encounter.
A fantastic break from Andries Coetzee off of some solid phase ball eventually saw Jesse Kriel go over in the right-hand corner, with Jantjies’ successful with the conversion. It didn’t take long for France to hit back however, with Yoann Huget collecting the ball just inside the Boks’ half before managing to chip the cover-defence. The bounce fooled Coetzee, and allowed Henry Chavancy to dot down – Jules Plisson’s added extras making the score 13-7.
Jantjies had the last say of the first-half, with another successful penalty allowing the Boks to go into the shed with a 16-7 lead.
The game really opened up at the start of the second forty; both sides seemingly desperate to have a crack with ball in hand, with offloads and slick backline passing reigning supreme.
Surprisingly, it was some hard, direct running that led to the match’s next score however, after the French midfield broke the Bok defensive-line before replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin dummied and dived over from the base of the ensuing ruck. Plisson made no mistake from the kicking tee to make it 16-14.
The Boks hit back with a vengeance when Courtnall Skosan, chasing a probing grubber kick, was illegally held back by fullback Brice Dublin, in the act of scoring a try. Dulin saw yellow, as the hosts were awarded a penalty try.
South Africa didn’t waste any time in securing another five-pointer, when a clever line-out variation allowed Warren Whiteley to put Ross Cronje away for a try on debut. Jantjies added the extra two to make the score 30-14.
The Boks continued to run riot as another line-break, this time from replacement Francois Hougaard, eventually led to a Jan Serfontein score. Jantjies maintained his 100% kicking display, as France were again made to rue the absence of their fullback.
The scores remained untroubled for the remainder of the encounter, as South Africa got home by 37 points to 14.
Allister Coetzee’s relief was palpable post-match, with the Bok coach believing the result to be a “step in the right direction”.
“This was the first of 13 Test matches for the season and at least we started with a positive performance and for that I am pretty pleased.
“We have closed the chapter on 2016 and this year we need to keep improving as a team. I have selected the best available team out there for this series, so it is pleasing that we won. We have the belief and ability in the team, but [the victory]was a baby step.”
Coetzee went on to stress the importance of building a strong culture within the squad, which would carry his side forward.
“We have a team environment that is growing and taking shape, you could see in the last five minutes how the guys defended. We know the French played without a number of their stars, yet they had us under pressure at times, but we never stopped working for each other.”
The second Test will be played at Growthpoint Kings Park next week, where the Springboks can expect a much-improved physical display from their opponents in the wake of the return of many of their first-choice players.
South Africa –
Tries: Kriel, penalty try, Cronje, Serfontein
Conversions: Jantjies x3
Penalties: Jantjies x3
Tries: Chavancy, Serin
Conversions: Plisson x2