French avoid humiliation
For much of the first Test between France and South Africa in Lyon on Saturday, it appeared that the supposed domination of southern hemisphere teams over the counterparts from the north was about to result in yet another humiliation of a European XV.
The French spent most of the match struggling to adjust to the intensity of the South Africans' physical commitment, which is nothing new, and also to their ability to counter-attack and keep the ball alive, which is.
At one stage of the game, the Springboks had scored five tries, to which France had replied with five penalties from Christophe Lamaison, putting the score at 36-15 with another 20 minutes to play.
If the final scoreline remains respectable for the French, and increases interest in Saturday's second Test in Paris, it is thanks to a spirited comeback in the final quarter which yielded three tries between the 68th and 79th minutes. Having been loudly booed by the crowd, the French, with Olivier Merle adding steel to the pack after coming on for Fabien Pelous, found the resources to take the game to the Springboks.
"We had prepared them for a scenario in which they would be 20 points behind," said Pierre Villepreux, the assistant coach. "In today's rugby it doesn't necessarily spell disaster."
The tries by Merle, Christian Califano and Stephane Glas (one converted by Lamaison), although far from spectacular, brought the crowd to their feet for the first time with only minutes left to play, but it was still not enough to head off this Springbok side which, since playing in France only 12 months ago, have revolutionised their approach to the game.
For 60 minutes they dominated the match, playing with confidence, and mercilessly punishing the numerous French mistakes. In a remarkable turnaround of traditional values, the South Africans showed more daring, more flair and more desire to play with the ball in hand. With the back three of Percy Montgomery, James Small and Pieter Rossouw always having room to move, they regularly mounted successful counterattacks from their own 22 and systematically kicked their penalties to touch, even when these were easily within Henry Honiball's range.
"Winning is important, but scoring tries is even more so," said their coach, Nick Mallett. "If we had just kicked the penalties today, we would not have won the match." The Springboks scored three firsthalf tries through Dick Muir, Montgomery, and Rossouw and added another from James Dalton after the pause, and when, with the score at 26-15, Honiball finally lined up his first attempt at a penalty goal, almost an hour had gone. James Small also contributed a try and Honiball landed four conversions.
Gary Teichmann, the Springbok captain, once again gave an outstanding performance at number eight. The one cloud on the South Africans' horizon was a groin injury to scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen in the last minute.