Autumn Nations Series preview: Springboks to end France’s win-streak in Marseille

Autumn Nations Series: Split image with France's Gregory Alldritt and Springbok Jasper Wiese Credit: Alamy
Autumn Nations Series: Split image with France's Gregory Alldritt and Springbok Jasper Wiese Credit: Alamy

Fabien Galthie’s Les Bleus side welcome the Springboks to France this weekend for what is sure to be another fantastic game of Test rugby in the Autumn Nations Series.

The world champions come off a narrow 19-16 loss against Ireland last weekend in a game the South Africans could have won and one they would have taken many learnings from. Coach Jacques Nienaber has made five changes to his line-up, including starts for experienced duo Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux, as well as a rejig of the front-row.

France managed to steal a result from Australia last weekend in Paris thanks to a glorious try from Damian Penaud late on to win the clash, making it 11 wins on the bounce. Galthie has stuck to his guns, naming an unchanged starting XV as he looks to continue building momentum.

It is a tale of two teams in Marseille as the hosts are looking to stamp their authority with their home World Cup less than a year away, whilst the Springboks are still searching for answers to some critical issues that need to be addressed if they are going to push for back-to-back titles.

The French side is electric, exciting and intelligent, while the Springboks are robust and passionate, making for yet another belter of a Test match in the Autumn Nations Series.

Where the game will be won

The forwards battle is absolutely crucial, and two aspects of the fight will be key in determining the result.

Firstly, the breakdown is key as quick ball is necessary to allow the French attack to fire on all cylinders as their forwards blast holes around the fringes of the ruck for superstar Antoine Dupont to exploit when he sees fit. Coupled with that is the hosts’ ability to disrupt the breakdown, as they did with eight steals against Australia last weekend. The Springboks will have to be alert to the emphasis on the breakdown, but with a 95% ruck success rate against Ireland, the visitors are set up to mitigate the threat.

Secondly is the collision zone and set-piece. France had five players with more than 10 carries against Australia compared to only three Springboks that reached double digits in their carry count against Ireland. The South Africans pride themselves on being a physical team, which will be tested this weekend as France will carry and carry and carry, waiting for the holes around the fringes or for the defensive line to narrow, allowing space out wide for their electric runners. If South Africa can gain dominance in the collision and have France attacking off the back foot, it would go a long way in disarming their impressive offloading game, forcing the hosts to kick long to the elusive Springbok back three.

France also has a significant advantage with several established goal-kickers in their ranks, which could prove decisive against a Springboks team desperate for a goal-kicker. Depending on how the first half plays out, debutant Manie Libbok may well get more minutes than he bargained for, particularly if the Springboks need to make points up from the tee.

Last time they met

What they said

Springboks scrum-half De Klerk says his side has been looking at how to reduce the influence of Dupont in the French set-up.

“If you look at the way they play, they want to keep their big forwards close to Dupont — they don’t play a lot off fly-half,” De Klerk said.

“They have their big ball carriers coming around the corner to get them on the front foot and that opens up holes for him.

“He is difficult to contain because he is very quick and physically strong, but we have some clever forwards who can hopefully stop him.”

Wing Kurt-Lee Arendse is hopeful the Springboks’ exciting back-three can find ways to exploit France’s kicking game.

“We have been preparing well for France. We know they are going to kick a lot. We have been focusing on receiving plenty of kicks,” said Arendse.

“Willie and Cheslin, with their experience, they have been helping me so much. We are prepared so we must just take it to France.”

Players to watch

The reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, Antoine Dupont, is sheer class. The French skipper has the most extraordinary skill set for a scrum-half, including incredible physicality and carrying ability, as 13 carries last weekend suggests. The Toulouse man can kick the ball a mile from the base of the ruck making life easy for Romain Ntamack. However, the synergy and understanding he provides players around him is one of his most valuable attributes. A truly sensational player that the Springboks will need to watch constantly.

Thomas Ramos will play a crucial role in the Test against the Springboks, particularly off the kicking tee, where if he can be accurate throughout the clash and keep the scoreboard ticking, France may drown the South Africans out. The full-back offers so much more than only kicking as he made 138 metres against Australia in 13 carries, including six broken tackles, making him a certified threat with ball in hand. The 27-year-old looks so comfortable in the French side and will no doubt influence the game on Saturday.

Julien Marchand underlined his class with a quality performance against Australia, where he made 12 carries, breaking three tackles in the process. The hooker is sound in the set-piece with a good lineout throw and solid at scrum time. The Frenchman will be looking to get his hands on the ball in tight spaces against the Springboks either off Dupont or with a pick-and-go as his team try to narrow the Springboks’ defence. It will be a fascinating duel between Marchand and Bongi Mbonambi at hooker this weekend.

Damian Willemse is definitely the Springbok under the most pressure going to the clash. The Stormer stepped into the fly-half role and has had some success but struggled against Ireland, with his goal-kicking the notable flaw. However, the Springboks management has kept faith in the versatile star and provided him with better tools to succeed. Willemse will not be the primary goal-kicker as Cheslin Kolbe with taking on that role which is a good decision because the fly-half inevitably plays better without the responsibility. The experienced De Klerk will offer more support on his inside, both with kicking and decision-making. The most notable support is the return of Le Roux, who has, in tandem with Willemse, cut defences wide open. Every time the Stormers star has excelled as a Test fly-half it has been with Le Roux at full-back, as it was in the first mid-year Test against Wales where the duo orchestrated an outstanding comeback in the second-half. With the additional support, expect Willemse to bounce back and silence his critics.

Former World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit has struggled to reach the heights Springboks fans have become accustomed to. However, there is always a sense of hope that he will find his form. The flank is tireless and committed, attributes that will be essential against a brilliant French side. Du Toit has also been given specific defensive assignments in past, and he will likely be keeping a close eye on Dupont, looking to fluster the superstar and combat the French attack from source. It’s a massive game for the big man who does have what it takes to return to his best.

Eben Etzebeth was once again a colossus for his side against Ireland, making 16 tackles and not missing one whilst making 13 carries and being a physical presence wherever possible. The Springbok lock seems to elevate himself further and further among the greats every time he takes to the field. Paired with workhorse Franco Mostert this week, Etzebeth will want nothing more than to be in the face of the French pack with hopes of preventing any momentum. The Springboks need a performance for the ages from their youngest Test centurion.

Main head-to-head

There are so many notable and critical matchups in this clash, but only one could be chosen, and it is the battle of the eights.

Gregory Alldritt is a remarkable player bursting with rugby intelligence and appreciation of the game outside of his physicality, endurance, ball-playing ability and nous. Against Australia, the star made 13 carries, 11 tackles and two turnovers as part of his contribution to the French momentum. He is absolutely everywhere on the field and always contributing with clever plays, such as ripping the ball from a teammate who is being held up by defenders and stealing a couple of yards with the breakaway. Almost everything good France does has Aldritt’s fingerprints on it at some stage of the process. The La Rochelle star is one of the several heartbeats in the French pack, and expect him to be an absolute menace on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Springbok Jasper Wiese may not have had his most sparkling performance against Ireland but is an essential ball carrier who impresses particularly in post-contact metres where his leg drive comes into play. The Leicester Tiger has ripped the number eight jersey from the great Duane Vermeulen’s hands and has deserved it completely. However, Wiese needs to step up after last week’s performance. Physicality is absolutely key, and if the number eight can carry well and dominate the defensive collision, it could go a long way in aiding his team’s cause. Facing up to the world-class Aldritt, the Springbok needs to be perfect.

Prediction

Another difficult game to call. France were lucky to win against Australia but, to their credit, produced the goods when it mattered, and Galthie will be demanding a better performance. On the other hand, the Springboks come off an arm wrestle of a Test that answered a lot of their questions, and now their main pressure point at fly-half has more adequate support to fire.

Kicking for goal will be telling, but the improved balance of the Springboks side will be enough to edge a brutally physical Test. South Africa by five.

Previous results

2018: South Africa won 29-26 in Paris
2017: South Africa won 18-17 in Paris
2017: South Africa won 35-12 in Johannesburg
2017: South Africa won 37-15 in Durban
2017: South Africa won 37-14 in Pretoria
2013: South Africa won 19-10 in Paris
2010: South Africa won 42-17 in Cape Town
2009: France won 20-13 in Toulouse

The teams

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Yoram Moefana, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 5 Thibaud Flament, 4 Cameron Woki, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Bastien Chalureau, 21 Sekou Macalou, 22 Maxime Lucu, 23 Matthieu Jalibert

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Marvin Orie, 20 Kwagga Smith, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Makazole Mapimpi

Date: Saturday, November 12
Venue: Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Karl Dickson (England), Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Five storylines to watch this weekend including England desperate to bounce back

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