JOHANNESBURG - Captain Warren Whiteley has called on his team-mates to make another step up on Saturday as the Springboks continue to rebuild after a disastrous 2016 season.
The Boks go into the third and final Test against France at Ellis Park (5pm kickoff) 2-0 up after convincing wins in Pretoria and Durban, and will start as the hot favourites at a venue where no less than eight Boks play their franchise rugby.
But after winning just four times in 12 matches last season, the class of 2017 know they still have plenty to prove, but the good thing, according to Whiteley, is that the foundations for a better future are being laid this month.
“I suppose, this being our third week together, things are a little easier,” he said on Friday. “The confidence is definitely growing in the group and the players are getting to know each other better. There’s continuity and the guys are familiar with what we want to achieve, what the processes are and what the game plan is.
“I suppose you could say we’ve set the foundation (in the first two Tests), but it’s very important that we keep the momentum going; it’s what we’re working towards (ahead of the Rugby Championships later in the year),” he said.
Asked what he specifically wanted out of the Test, Whiteley said an all-round improvement. “We’re an evolving group and we’re hungry for success, to keep improving. We just want to get better at everything we do and this weekend provides us with an opportunity to do that.
Whatever happened at Ellis Park, though, Whiteley said it would not have too much bearing on bigger challenges down the line.
“We’re not here to send out statements to anyone... it’s not part of our DNA. I do feel we’re moving in the right direction, not just on the field, but off it too in terms of our team environment and our culture, but we’ll stay firmly on our feet (if we do manage to make it 3-0).
“These are early days... there’s a long season ahead for us, and there are lots of challenges to come. We just want to keep improving, and we’ve got a chance to do that.”
France, said Whiteley, would pose a big challenge on Saturday as they’ll be keen to keep their unbeaten record at Ellis Park intact. The visitors haven’t lost at the venue in four previous meetings and, said Whiteley, they’ll want to end their tour on a high.
“We’ve been in a real fight in the last two Tests, and I believe this weekend will be the same. They’ll be up for it, make no mistake, even though the series is done. They’re not going to just roll over; they’re playing for their country’s pride. It’s going to be a massive Test.”
With eight Lions players in the match-day squad, the Boks will be heavy favourites to go all the way for their third week in a row and give coach Allister Coetzee and his whole management team the perfect start to the 2017 season.
One of the men who’ll feel Saturday is perfect no matter what happens between the four white lines is Lions tighthead Ruan Dreyer, who’ll make his debut.
Whiteley said he could not be happier for his provincial teammate. “We’ve come a long way together, we’ve travelled a long journey. Myself, Jaco Kriel and Ruan went on our first Bok tour together at the end of 2014, and we were the only three guys on that tour to not get a game. It was a tough four weeks, not getting a game.
“I’m so proud he’s got his opportunity. He’s worked so hard and been knocking for a while.”
For two weeks the Boks have knocked on the door; on Saturday, they need to smash it down and end this series on the high they have so desperately craved after the disaster of last year.
In the words of fullback Andries Coetzee, Saturday’s performance will hopefully be the cherry on top for the Boks this June.
Teams For Ellis Park
Springboks: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Warren Whiteley (capt), 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Nans Ducuing, 13 Damian Penaud, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kevin Gourdon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (capt), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Clement Maynadier, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Vincent Rattez.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia).