JOHANNESBURG – In the many manifestations of what his dream starting line-up would look like in the first Test match against France, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee would have never envisaged handing out four debuts and having a locally based outfit running out at Loftus Versfeld.
However, the reality of how the Lions players have performed in Super Rugby, how some of the senior players have showed a willingness to contribute and the way in which the Springboks want to play this season and beyond is a far cry from Coetzee’s ideal dream team.
Coetzee, though, is not complain and in fact is a happy man as he has rewarded form and allowed in a breath of fresh air into a team that was not only struggling with its identity on and off the field but they were in desperate need of getting that winning feeling back.
“It has been very tight calls and it’s been tough to select the team for the first Test. If you look at the first 15 all those players have performed well in Super Rugby, showed good form and trained very well in the past two weeks. It wasn’t easy but I had to start somewhere and make a selection and that was the call. Some might feel a bit unlucky not to be starting or in the 23 but I’m so happy with the way it is much narrower than before. These players are really pushing for positions and it’s a good position to be in,” Coetzee said at Thursday’s team announcement press conference in Pretoria.
While the bulk of Coetzee’s starting team is rightfully made up of Lions players, seven to be exact, including debuts for fullback Andries Coetzee, wing Courtnall Skosan and scrumhalf Ross Cronje, the Bok boss has also spent a great deal of time considering how the combinations will fall into place in his puzzle to get the team back to winning ways.
Such is the influence of the winning rugby the Lions are playing that even lock Franco Mostert gets a rare start alongside Eben Etzebeth in the second row and will form a spine of the pack with Malcolm Marx at hooker and captain Warren Whiteley at number eight with Cronje and Elton Jantjies completing it.
“It is great to have that because you need to have calm heads, guys who understand their roles and responsibilities and they would be the most important guys when things get tough. It is not going to be easy this Test, it is going to be a massive Test match but it is nice to look at someone who you have played together. Warren will rely on those decision makers obviously but also rely on Siya Kolisi and an Eben Etzebeth, those are the leaders in the team and a Beast (Mtawarira) being there. I just feel that we have a good synergy in the team,” Coetzee said.
Over and above the influence the Lions style of play will have in the manner in which the Springboks want to play, Coetzee has also opted for a bulky loose trio with Oupa Mohoje making a return at blindside flank with his abrasiveness on defence, thunderous ball carrying abilities and option at the back of the lineout.
At the same time Coetzee resisted the temptation to go with the rusty Jaco Kriel at openside flank as the Lions man is in the final phase of his rehabilitation and has gone for Kolisi who has impressed in Super Rugby for the Stormers with his barnstorming runs, ability to play to the ball and high work rate behind the ball.
“They are battle hardened guys, they’ve trained and played for two weeks. If you look at those three loose forwards in terms of what we want. We want to have a good lineout option and we know Warren is great lineout option but we need a fourth one with Oupa Mohoje who has been good at that. Oupa what he brings defensively, he has been very good. Siya Kolisi is a big carrier and also plays a similar role on the ground playing towards the ball on attack and turning the ball over. It is a much of a muchness, I think it is a good balance. Oupa an extra option in the lineout and Siya the other ball carrying role in the wide channel in the way we want to play with Warren carrying there as well,” Coetzee added.
When it comes to the midfield pairing of Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel, Coetzee has gone for experience with the Bulls duo having shown some glimpses of the form that made them internationals a few seasons ago and also their winning percentage in the Green and Gold jersey.
Coetzee’s concoction of form, youth and experience will hopefully yield the desired results and hand the Bok mentor the dream start he seeks in a season of new beginnings after the disaster of last year.
“It means new beginning. New beginning in terms of everything. Whether we can have young players but I think we have a vibrant group of players. The way they have trained and Saturday I’m sure they will take that onto the field. There will be mistakes because they are young players and a new combination. We are not living in fool’s paradise here but I’m sure there is energy and intensity and that is what I’m looking forward to seeing.”
Meanwhile, France have named a new-look side with 11 changes from that which played in their last Six Nations encounter against Wales with lock Yoann Maestri set to lead the side in the absence of the seven players that participated in the Top 14 final which include regular captain Guilhem Guirado.
Springbok team: 15. Andries Coetzee, 14. Raymond Rhule, 13. Jesse Kriel, 12. Jan Serfontein, 11. Courtnall Skosan, 10. Elton Jantjies, 9. Ross Cronje, 8. Warren Whiteley (captain), 7. Oupa Mohoje, 6. Siya Kolisi, 5. Franco Mostert, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 3. Frans Malherbe, 2. Malcolm Marx, 1. Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: 16. Bongi Mbonambi, 17. Steven Kitshoff, 18. Coenie Oosthuizen, 19. Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20. Jean-Luc du Preez, 21. Francois Hougaard, 22. Frans Steyn, 23. Dillyn Leyds.
France team: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Loann Goujon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Yoann Maestri (captain), 4 Julien le Devedec, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Clément Maynadier, 1 Jefferson Poirot. Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Kévin Gourdon, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Vincent Rattez.