Two teams clash in Paris on Saturday evening having experienced vastly different years. France have had one of their poorest years in recent memory, finishing rock bottom of the Six Nations and suffering a 3-0 whitewash on their summer tour to New Zealand. They have just one win against a tier one nation this year, and desperately need something to cling onto heading into next season. Their opponents this weekend have emerged as comfortably the second best team in the world, distancing themselves from the chasing pack and, despite not managing to beat them, almost drawing level with the illustrious All Blacks. That said, they have not beaten France on French soil since 1997, an unwanted record they will doubtless be aware of coming into the game.
Since deciding to play an actual fly-half, Rémi Talès, at number ten, France have looked like a much better team than the one that stuttered through the Six Nations. In the centres Wesley Fofana is a brilliant player, and his partnership with Florian Fritz features both power and guile. Sofiane Guitone has impressed in his introduction to international rugby, as has fullback Bruce Dulin.
If you are to take on South Africa, however, you need to have a pack that can go toe-to-toe with them. It is somewhat surprising, then, that Louis Picamoles is no-where to be seen. He may not have had the best season, but he is one of the most destructive ball carriers in world rugby, and provides ballast at the base of the scrum. His replacement, Damien Chouly, cedes almost two stone to him, and along with Wenceslas Lauret and captain Thierry Dusautoir, forms a back-row that is more mobile than it is powerful.
The front five, then, have a huge job to do, and it is a relief for French fans that Yoann Maestri’s ban has been overturned and he is available this weekend. The giant Toulouse lock lines up next to elder statesman Pascal Papé in a bruising engine room duo that will have to be at its best to nullify the brutish Etzebeth and his co-conspirator Flip van de Merwe (not to mention Bakkies Botha on the bench).
The South African team has a hugely settled feel about it. The loss of Fourie du Preez is a big one, and will be keenly felt – he is so good at dictating the pace of the game and bringing other players into it, but then his replacement, Ruan Pienaar, is hardly shoddy, and will benefit from having played many of his opponents in the Heineken Cup.
Willie le Roux starts at fullback after impressing last weekend alongside the vastly experienced duo of JP Pietersen and Brian Habana, and this is a theme that continues throughout the backs, with Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie combining power and intelligence in the centres.
So much has already been written about the Springbok pack that it is hardly worth saying any more. It is huge. The only fault line could potentially appear in the form of Coenie Ousthuizen at tighthead prop – he has eight caps to his name but has never started a test match, and was snubbed at the beginning of this series in favour of the uncapped Frans Malherbe. That said, with Bismarck du Plessis and the Beast next to him, he should be fine.
All eyes on
The heartbeat of the team, a tackling machine; Thierry Dusautoir is the unsung hero of everything France do. He wears six on his back tomorrow but really covers the duty of the whole back-row. He once made an astonishing 38 tackles in one game, and on Saturday his ability to be seemingly everywhere will be tested to the max by a South Africa team who rarely take a backwards step.
It is a testament to how well Willie le Roux has been playing that he starts this weekend, with Heyneke Meyer publicly saying this would be his first choice XV. Le Roux is not a typical South African back – he is lightweight, exciting and not afraid to try things, but he showed a maturity at fullback last week, allied with his dazzling pace and vision, that has convinced Meyer he is the right choice ahead of the safer option of Patrick Lambie.
Head to head: Morgan Parra v Ruan Pienaar
Arguably lucky to have played so much this series, with many calling for the impressive Jonathan Pelissié to be given a go, Morgan Parra has a big role to play on Saturday in repaying the faith of Philippe Saint-André. He is not the type of scrum-half that makes length of the field breaks, but he controls the game well and his service to his fly-half is excellent. In that sense, he is largley similar to the way his opposite number plays. Ruan Pienaar is well known to Northern Hemisphere audiences after helping orchestrate Ulster back the top of the European game in recent years. There have been some excellent Heineken Cup battles between these two in Clermont and Ulster colours down the years – how they play tomorrow will likely shape the outcome of the game again.
The French may have had a torrid year, but the way they have played this autumn, with Talès at fly-half, has been much more encouraging. They rattled the All Blacks and comfortably beat Tonga, so bring some confidence into the game – a dangerous commodity for any French team to have. The South Africans have that confidence too, having proved this year that they can mix their traditional power with a more open, exciting style of play that has won them many admirers on the international scene. It should be an absolute belter of a game, and the Springboks could well end a brilliant year on a high. South Africa by 6.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images