PARIS, France, Nov 9 – A one-off Test is always important but when France and South Africa line up in Paris on Saturday, winning on the night will not be the only item on the agenda.
Both sides will have one eye on the next World Cup in Japan which is now just 10 months away.
Both coaches, the highly experienced Jacques Brunel and former Bok flanker Rassie Erasmus, have come into their jobs in the last 12 months, taking over teams that were struggling with identity and results.
Their task is to mould two sides that can challenge the All Blacks in Japan.
Brunel would appear to have the bigger challenge. He replaced Guy Noves last December since when France have won just two of his eights Tests in charge.
“We are looking for the spine,” said Brunel referring to the traditional rugby backbone of hooker, number eight, half-backs and full-back.
In those five positions, only the hooker Guilhem Guirado looks a certainty for the World Cup.
“Guirado is the captain so that’s a vote of confidence,” said Brunel. “We want him to prove that he is immoveable in his position.”
That means there will be plenty of scrutiny on the rest of the spine, all of whom are returning to the side after time away either through suspension, injury or lack of form.
Experienced number eight Louis Picamoles returns at the back of the scrum but most eyes will be on the French half-backs, Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez.
Serin has had a yo-yo year, going from first choice scrum-half down to number five and back into the starting line-up, albeit with Morgan Parra, Maxime Machenaud and Baptiste Couilloud all injured.
Lopez, meanwhile, returns after an 18-month absence and a terrible foot injury. Brunel rates the Clermont fly-half highly and is desperate for him to lock down the number 10 shirt before the World Cup.
“He (Lopez) has to show us that he is the best in France,” said Brunel who has also plumped for experience and horses-for-courses in choosing Maxime Medard at full-back ahead of Benjamin Fall.
— ‘Positive wave’ —
“For the Springboks, territory is all important. We think that Maxime has a longer kicking game than Benjamin. He is one of the most experienced players we have.”
Experience is also fundamental to Erasmus who took over the Bok hot seat in February and has already led them to a rare victory in New Zealand.
Hence his pragmatic decision to bring in Willie le Roux at full-back and Faf de Klerk at scrum-half as soon as they were available ahead of Damian Willemse and Ivan van Zyl.
Lock Franco Mostert comes in for the injured Eben Etzebeth.
“It’s good to have the experienced players back in the starting team for France‚” said Erasmus who is still smarting, like the rest of the Springbok squad, from last weekend’s controversial 12-11 defeat by England.
“We are building squad depth for the Rugby World Cup and they (Willemse and van Zyl) will be back in the mix as the tour progresses.
“The big thing is to build caps and experience before next year’s World Cup.”
South Africa haven’t lost to the French since 2009 but Erasmus is not taking another victory as a given.
“Two years ago, people would have said that playing France was easy, they had a lot of weaknesses,” he said.
“Since then they have changed coach and there is a positive wave.
“It’s going to be a tough one to come out here. Last year the Springboks did really well when they ground out a win (18-17). I think it’s going to be very much the same this year.”