Springboks vs France – a clash of the giants
FRANCE flanker Imanol Harinordoquy last night turned up the heat as South Africa set out to to improve a dismal recent record against France, which had all the ingredients to make last night’s game in Toulouse the international match of the autumn.
Both sides were at full strength and well motivated so there was to be no shadow boxing down in the heartland of French rugby.
World Champions South Africa had not won in France since 1997 and have triumphed in only one of the last six meetings between two of the game’s superpowers.
The last time they met was in Cape Town in 2006 when Les Bleus made off with a notable 36-26 win, although the triumph of which France are most proud is their 32-23 win at altitude at Ellis Park in 2001.
Of course, nothing is beyond France when in the mood, but the reason they boast such an enviable record against the Springboks is that they are one of the few teams in the world capable of standing up to them physically among the forwards. Which is where the action was set to be the hottest last night.
Cue the straight-talking Harinordoquy. “South Africa are world champions, they are the best team in the world but they also are the nastiest and most physical team in the world,” insisted the Biarritz No 8, who will be operating on the openside flank.
“They are a team that is always trying to hurt,’’ he said. “Of course, they play inside the rules, they don’t stamp on you or knee you because now if you do that it’s a yellow card or even a red card.
“Our sport is changing but the fundamentals are the same. A rugby game, and particularly a game against the Springboks, is above all a fight between two packs of forwards.
“You could say they are butchers but I can assure you we are not going to be the lambs.
“They don’t play a very sophisticated game but they always try to break their opponents’ defence, they are very strong in the tackle, and in the rucks, their lineout is superb and they are hefty in the physical duels.
“To match them, we’ll have to be very strong on the fundamentals of the game, do simple things but do them well even if sometimes it’s the most difficult. I’m sure we can do it but we’ll have to be at our best and play with a lot of solidarity.”
You might quibble with some of Harinordoquy’s emotive language, but playing South Africa does undoubtedly remain the supreme physical challenge in international rugby.
Harinordoquy will know, however, that this Springbok team are also packed full of intelligent, instinctive footballers; not least scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who looks a shoo-in for the IRB player of the year for 2009.
Factor in John Smit, one of the great captains from any era, and you have a team to reckon with.
You do not beat the All Blacks three times on the bounce in two months by accident.
Coach Peter de Villiers is prepared for the French assault.
“It could be even more severe than the British Lions series. France is one of those teams we respect and I expect them to come out with all guns blazing.
“We know how passionate the people are here, we know how the players can get raw energy from the crowd. It will be really tough, but that’s exactly what Test rugby’s about.”
France included seven home Toulouse players for the occasion, although coach Marc Lievremont dropped local hero Maxime Médard, a star of their summer Test win in New Zealand.
Médard has not been quite himself since suffering a nasty bout of swine flu in September and is feeling his way back to top form.
No surprises in the Bok team although the rejigged back row has a slightly unfamiliar look in the absence of the injured Pierre Spies and Juan Smith.
Unfamiliar but still formidable. – The Telegraph