Stadium not a bogey, but beating France at home is high on the Boks’to-do list
HE Springboks have managed to get a few bogeys off their backs this year. When they scraped to a narrow win over Argentina in Mendoza, it was their first triumph in an away-leg game in the premier southern hemisphere international competition since 2009, and when they won in Brisbane two weeks later, it was their first win there since for goodness knows how long.
Heyneke Meyer likes ticking off the boxes when it comes to taking his side through the different frontiers that you face during your time as Bok coach. So it hasn’t been surprising that the South African record against France on French soil has been a big part of the discourse in the build-up to tonight’s match at Stade de France.
The Boks haven’t won here against France in 16 years, and on that prima facie evidence, you would suggest that this is indeed another bogey that needs to be conquered.
But talk of Paris being any kind of hoodoo for the Boks is a bit like suggesting that the sight of sea birds dive-bombing the water is bad news for fishermen.
The Boks have only played France twice in Paris in those 16 years. Two other games were played outside Paris. In 2002, Rudolf Straeuli’s team were smashed in Marseilles, but having been at that match, I want to tell you there is a good reason why that venue has been tough even on the All Blacks over the years. There is no more noisy, aggressive and partisan crowd in world rugby.
In 2009 John Smit took his team to Toulouse following a triumphant southern season that had seen them beat the British and Irish Lions and easily win the Tri-Nations. They thought they were the bees knees, and their complacency was illustrated by their decision to fly to France only two days before the game.
It was no surprise to me at the time that they got caught in an ambush.
There have been only two defeats in Paris. The first was in 2001, when Harry Viljoen’s team was beaten 20-10. That result needs to be placed in context – that was an era when South African rugby wasn’t exactly blessed with talent.
A rebuilding job was under way, and Viljoen was drifting in a noman’s-land when it came to strategy after it became clear to him that he wasn’t going to be able to reinvent the Bok playing style in the way that he had hoped.
In 2005, the last time the Boks played the French at Stade de France, it was a bitterly cold night, with a layer of snow having covered the Parisian streets in the morning, and it looked as though the Boks were still trying to thaw out when the French built up a big early lead.
The South Africans recovered and came back strongly at the end and nearly won the game, but they had just left themselves with too much to do.
That also wasn’t the strongest team the coach of that era was able to push into the field. You might recall it as a Test that Jake White
Thad Meyer Bosman playing one of only two games he was to play at international level at flyhalf because of an injury to Andre Pretorius.
So how much of a bogey is Stade de France really, particularly if you counter-balance it with the games that the Boks have won against other countries at the venue?
In 1999 Nick Mallett’s team smashed England there in a World Cup quarter-final, while in 2007, England were again swamped, this time in a pool game. Later in the tournament the Boks returned to Stade de France to win a semi-final against Argentina and the final against England.
By my count that makes the South African record at Stade de France: Played 6, won 4, lost 2 ( the home of French rugby switched from Parc des Princes to Stade de France immediately after the 52-10 Bok win there in 1997).
But while that suggests Stade de France is far from a bogey field, it doesn’t mean the Boks aren’t up against it tonight.
A lot will depend on how the Boks see France. We know the French grow an extra arm and a leg when they play top southern hemisphere opposition, but what we don’t know is whether the Boks have the same intense desire to beat France that they do to beat England.
Why that is important is because they have had just a six-day turnaround from their last match against Scotland and to me the players are looking understandably fatigued after all the non-stop challenges they have had to face down in the form of Super Rugby, incoming tours, Rugby Championship, Currie Cup and now the November tour since it all started back in February.
I have seen them like this before on previous end-of-year tours, but the knowledge they are playing England, a foe they always seem particularly determined to beat for reasons that may relate to history, tends to drive them through the final week.
The last time they didn’t play England in a final match of the year was 2009, when they went to Dublin, and it was the last time they lost a last game on tour.
And the previous time they lost an end-of-season game was here in Paris in 2005. On all the other occasions they have finished the year with a flourish, and each time they have been playing England.
So the Bok chances today depend on how desperate they are to beat France and sweep the biting cold and fatigue aside in order to do so.