For those of you sickened by the Springboks’ results and performances in 2016, the good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
South Africa’s 37-14 win over France at Loftus Versfeld was by no means a perfect performance and the visitors will certainly be stronger for the second Test in Durban when some of their first-choice players who were playing in the Top 14 final return to action.
But in terms of new beginnings, in terms of attitude and ambition, it was just the tonic and it put smiles on the faces of most of the 29 313 people at Loftus Versfeld.
What was most pleasing about the victory was that it was achieved by two characteristics largely missing last year – physically dominating the French and by showing a ruthless edge in capitalising on most of the chances they were given.
The fuse for a passionate, stirring forward display was lit by Malcolm Marx. The Lions hooker seemed to be everywhere in the first half and produced some barn-storming runs, scattering French defenders at will, as well as neat handling. And he did so without sacrificing the quality of his core jobs – he scrummed well and operated a tidy lineout.
The Springboks were given front-foot ball by a superb effort from their pack, led by Eben Etzebeth in one of his stronger performances at international level for some time. There was much speculation as to how the loose trio – which was relatively lightweight at a combined 321kg compared to France’s 339kg – would fare, but Siya Kolisi and Oupa Mohoje stood up well in the absence of Duane Vermeulen and there was no lack of physicality, with Les Bleus coach Guy Noves admitting after the game that being “physically dominated” was the main reason for their loss.
Mohoje’s work-rate was good, with eight tackles and none missed, and eight carries for 52 metres, while Kolisi made 77 metres from just five carries and completed 14 of his 17 tackles, as well as making a vital turnover; a busy performance indeed.
Captain Warren Whiteley had a quieter game with just five carries for 38 metres and five passes, and he made all six of his tackles; but in terms of how the Springboks seem to want to play this year, the eighthman is set to fulfil more of a classical linking role and will spend more time in the wider channels. France’s eighthman Louis Picamoles was used in a similar role and had very similar stats to Whiteley, although that seemed a little wasteful of his physical attributes.
It’s a role perfected by Kieran Read for the All Blacks and it will be interesting to track Whiteley’s statistics against the All Black captain’s through the year.
Probably the biggest surprise of the first Test was how well the Springboks scrummed against a much-vaunted French set-piece, with Frans Malherbe, Marx and Tendai Mtawarira laying down the law in this crucial part of the game. While Marx was deservedly the official man of the match, Malherbe also made 10 tackles in a strong all-round performance, while the Beast had half-a-dozen carries and tackles each to his name.
While there was a hint, especially in the first half, of the Springboks being a bit too lateral on attack, coach Allister Coetzee said afterwards that he was pleased with the amount of width they gained offensively. The quickness of hand and mind of scrumhalf Ross Cronje and a performance from Elton Jantjies that suggests he can step up to the demands that are placed on a Test flyhalf ensured that the Springboks were constantly probing though, and it was generally done at a pace that does indicate a change in approach from last year.
Jantjies slotted all six of his kicks at goal and four tries were scored in a Test for the first time in 51 weeks, since the stirring late comeback against Ireland at Ellis Park last June.
A sterner test does almost certainly await the Springboks in the second Test at Kings Park, however, and the Pretoria result could have been different had the marginal penalty try awarded in favour of Courtnall Skosan gone the other way.
On such fine lines does Test rugby revolve.
The Springboks were not always defensively watertight – France were able to create space out wide a bit too easily – so that is an area that still requires some work.
But Coetzee will surely not tamper too much with a winning team; Jesse Kriel’s concussion perhaps leading to the only change, with Jan Serfontein shifting to outside centre and Francois Steyn grabbing the number 12 jersey for the first time since September 2012.