South Africa got their 2017 Test campaign off to a superb start when they secured a 37-14 victory over France in the First Test in Pretoria.
With five Springboks making their Test debuts, the home side still managed to see off les Bleus after outscoring the visitors four tries to two.
It took a massive call by Television match referee Rowan Kitt to ignite the fire inside the Springboks that they desperately needed to surge to an impressive 37-14 win over France at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.
After the horrific 2016 season, the 29 000 spectators that turned up to the Bulls' fortress were both apprehensive and hopeful.
Understandably, they were more worried by the Boks' inability to deliver than the threat posed by the French.
But on a night where they started their “new beginning” – in Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s own words – the Springbok squad stood up and were counted and were deserved winners in the first of three matches.
Kitt’s call came on the hour mark and at a crucial time, just as France had narrowed the scoreline to two points and the Boks were looking listless, and ignited a 21-point rally that ripped the match away from the tourists.
Jan Serfontein stabbed an excellent ball through into the dead ball area, with Courtnall Skosan motoring after it. Skosan seemed to be impeded – but only slightly – by French fullback Brice Dulin, with the TMO calling it on a technicality and delivering a hammer blow to the French.
The result was an automatic seven pointer, a yellow card for Dulin and an excellent boost for the Springboks in front of a Loftus crowd that was uneasy with anticipation.
It set up the platform for the most comprehensive victory under Coetzee and will give the Boks some breathing space going into the second match in Durban next week.
But the team will know that Durban represents a bigger challenge, as several French stalwarts are set to return after missing the game because of the French Top 14 final on Sunday, and will provide a tougher challenge all round.
That is next week’s concern though, and for now the Boks will be happy with a victory that was boosted by their numerical advantage and through tries by Serfontein and Ross Cronje to add to Jesse Kriel’s first-half score.
And while it was emphatic, the Boks will know that this is only a beginning and they will need to back this up with two more impressive performances to regain the faith of their supporters.
Yet, all that is easier with a win on the board and, considering the pressure the team was under, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Built on the back of impressive performances – mainly by man-of-the-match Malcolm Marx, lock Franco Mostert and flanker Siya Kolisi, the Bok forwards stood their ground well against the bulky French side, and while their attack didn’t always have the fluidity it needed, it was a much more impressive performance than anything they produced in the last 12 months.
Ironically, it was just less than 12 months ago that the Boks won their last game against Australia at the same venue.
Marx’s physicality was exceptional, and while it didn’t always work, there was more balance coupled with a willingness to take risky decisions at times. But behind the victory there will be some questions on defence out wide, which still needs some work.
Still, the Boks realised it was test rugby when they went up 6-0 early through penalties, shunning the chance to go for the touchline and rather take the logical alternative.
France had their chances, but in essence lost every big moment of the game, which placed them under pressure for large parts of the match.
The one inexperienced player who also stood out on attack – fullback Andries Coetzee – sparked the opening try after he battled his way through three tackles, was pulled to ground but not held, and emerged to head upfield, sending the ball to Marx who put a flying Kriel over the line.
It left the Boks 13-0 up after a half hour with the home side threatening to build a big lead.
The bounce of the ball brought the French back into the game when winger Yoann Huget chipped over Elton Jantjies and seemed to have won the race, but the ball eluded both players, dropping perfectly for Henry Chavancy to go over and score.
A penalty in the second half extended the lead to 16-7 but the Boks started missing tackles as the French grew with confidence, making inroads into the Bok territory almost at will.
The defence was good close in, but there seemed to be gaps out wide, exploited by the French attack and eventually setting the platform for their second try.
Chavancy ran over Kriel as the midfielder fell badly, being concussed in the process, taking the ball up to the line, and the nippy replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin saw the gap and dived over, making it a two point game.
Then came the crucial call, one that may seem overly harsh to the French given the argument that Skosan may not have been able to gather the ball anyway.
But it was given and France were on the backfoot almost immediately.
Then came a moment of pure exploitative and tactical genius as a training ground move found Warren Whiteley after the ball was overthrown. A perfect pass inside saw Cronje burst through the gap and run through to score, stunning the French with the precision.
With the bench being cleared, Francois Hougaard broke in his own half to find a flying Coetzee, with the fullback running as far as he could before passing outside to Serfontein, who went sideways and then under Virimi Vakatawa as he scored in his favourite corner of Loftus, sealing the try that would take the Boks home.
This was by no means the perfect performance, but it was a necessary and important win. The new beginning under Coetzee needed to begin with a victory.
For South Africa:
Tries: Kriel, Penalty Try, Cronjé, Serfontein
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 3
Tries: Chavancy, Serin
Cons: Plisson 2
Yellow Card: Dulin
South Africa: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Dillyn Leyds
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Loann Goujon, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Yoann Maestri (c), 4 Julien le Devedec, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Clément Maynadier, 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Mohamed Boughanmi, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Kévin Gourdon, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Vincent Rattez
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)
(Thanks to SA Rugby)