Warren Whiteley and his Lions teammates will bring an attacking edge to the Springboks. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu, BackpagePix
DURBAN – It’s been unnerving hearing the chatter around the Springboks’ impending series against France.

The prevailing view, from experts and ignoramuses alike, is that the Boks ought to have too much for the Europeans. This is a view based on, well, not very much.

The facts don’t support the optimism. The Boks are attempting to come out of a very deep, very dark hole. Super Rugby has been a hit-and-miss affair, and the French are big, hairy buggers who will come hard.

Fortunately, complacency will constitute no part of the Springboks themselves. They have no reason to feel smug or superior. Ranked seventh, they’re at the bottom of a tall ladder.

Small steps must be taken, new methods embraced.

The early signs are encouraging, not least the appointment of Warren Whiteley, a Durban old boy who is charismatic, shrewd, athletic and dignified. He’s the very antithesis of Adriaan Strauss, his predecessor, who will forever be damned for the Boks’ miserable 2016.

Whiteley is a classical eighthman in the mould of Gary Teichmann, applying a cerebral touch to the game. It’s a quality the Boks have needed in the recent past.

Along with Whiteley have come a whole lot of Lions players, an important addition given how they have lorded it over local opposition in recent seasons. The trouble with this, though, is that Lions rugby is not Springbok rugby.

Coach Allister Coetzee is a fundamentalist at heart. He might reach for new means and attempt to flex his muscle, but his default position is the old way. It’s what he feels most comfortable with.

There’s nothing wrong with embracing South Africa’s traditional strengths, but if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the game has moved on. We need to stretch ourselves.

Allister Coetzee prefers the traditional South African style of play. Photo: Aubrey Kgakatsi, BackpagePix

The likelihood is that the Lions contingent will go into straitjackets and be discouraged from showing their full plumage. This is most obviously the case with a player like Elton Jantjies. Given his freedom by the Lions, he plays flat and fast, directing the traffic as he sees fit.

For the Boks, he’ll be expected to stand in the pocket and play a different game, one he neither enjoys nor feels comfortable with. And then we’ll all go on about how ordinary Jantjies is for the Boks, refusing to recognise that he serves two masters with vastly different styles.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. Indeed, word from sessions run by Brendan Venter, the new assistant, is that some very unorthodox plays are being run. He’s a lateral rugby thinker, so if any of that rubs off on Coetzee, it can’t be a bad thing.

Coetzee will also benefit from having had time to put his management team together and plan for the year, unlike last season when his late appointment seemed to affect every result. Rugby coaching on the run never works.

Elton Jantjies plays it flat and fast. Photo: Samuel Shivambu, BackpagePix

And so to the French. Coach Guy Noves is unusual in the sense that he doesn’t believe in the cliché of French flair. He says it is a romantic notion many years past its sell-by date. He’s right, too. The last touring team that ripped it up in the old Gallic way did so in New Zealand in 1994.

Noves is more pragmatic, a pragmatism that has earned him a staggering nine French championships with Stade Toulouse and four Heineken Cup triumphs. Even if he’s getting on a bit, he can coach.

France had an iffy Six Nations, but pushed a resurgent England hard. They’re big in the physical sense and play fast.

The hard fields will thus suit them and in No 8 Louis Picamoles, they have one of the great modern-day players. He is a force of nature who will stamp his mark early in the series. If the Boks manage to keep him on a tight rein, their ambitions will be met. If not, he’ll wreak havoc.

Unlike other European nations, the French have regularly won in SA over the years, most recently in 2006 when they scored four tries against a seasoned Bok XV at Newlands.

Don’t expect the tourists to be meek. They will rumble hard and test a Springbok team desperate to rediscover its mojo.

Plus ça change, South Africa?

Let’s hope not.

Sunday Tribune

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