France end the Boks' unbeaten run
The signs that had been showing themselves in the previous matches were finally confirmed as the Springboks surrendered their unbeaten home record under Jake White with a 36-26 defeat to France at Newlands on Saturday.
France scored four tries to one, and the South Africans can be thankful that this was not the French at their very best. If France had really been on song, they would have sunk the predictable and stagnating home team by an even bigger score.
Although they played the more enterprising rugby in the first 20 minutes, and were the first to score after just four minutes through a try to left wing Cedric Heymans, who pounced on a well hoisted and directed kick from Vincent Clerc, France were not at all good in the first half.
Like the Boks, they battled to control the ball, with both backs and forwards spilling the ball far too often for what should be expected at this level.
The French tried hard to pierce the South African defences, and had much more success at it than when the Boks were carrying the ball, but they did not really threaten the South African line again in the first half.
Instead, it was the consistent goalkicking of Percy Montgomery that clawed the Boks back into the game, and kept them in touch. At one stage the French, who added to the early try with a penalty from Dimitri Yachvili, followed by a drop-goal from centre Florian Fritz, led 11-3.
Montgomery’s boot, however, was on target, and although he did miss one penalty attempt and later a conversion, he was successful with four first-half penalties to enable the Boks to lead 12-11 at halftime. Let it be said though, that many in the crowd would have spent the break wondering how it was that their team managed to be ahead.
The talk should also have centered on how it was that White could conspire to leave out a specialist fetcher?
The ball was coming back too slowly from the breakdown, and with Fourie du Preez in such poor form and slinging out wild passes, the Boks just never gained the necessary fluidity in their play.
For all that, the hosts did look to be taking control when they went 23-11 up in the 50th minute.
All afternoon the Boks had battled to start a drive from the lineouts, while there was never any dominance to speak of in the set-scrums.
Early in the second half, however, the Boks did seem to be getting just a bit of go-forward, and it was not a complete surprise when they created a first try for the unpredictable Brent Russell, playing on the wing.
It was to be the only Bok try of the match though, and from then on, it was all France.
First Clerc rounded off a movement by going over to cut the deficit to just five points, and then Florian Fritz punched a hole through the middle and enabled flyhalf Damien Traille to take advantage of a superiority in numbers to go over between the uprights.
Traille was not a huge success as a retreaded flyhalf (he is normally a centre), but he did have his moments, and this was one of them. A couple of minutes later he popped up again to slot a drop-goal to make it 28-23 to France with a quarter of an hour remaining.
The Boks tried hard to pump some enterprise and flair into their game, but it is a fact that they fall well short in this department when Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie are absent.
With Du Preez proving such a problem at No 9, White should also be hoping that Ricky Januarie, who is more the business when it comes to igniting things at the back, quickly regains the form that he showed last season but which has deserted him just lately.
White himself is going to have to take a long hard look at where he is going. While he was winning, he could paper over the cracks, but his contention that specialist scavenging fetcher flankers are obsolete was put to a severe test in this match, and it was seen to be exposed.
Without Schalk Burger there to clean out, the Bok ball just came back too slowly, and if White wants to turn it around, he may well have to go cap in hand to Luke Watson and ask the Stormers man to join his squad.
Other problem areas are flyhalf, where admittedly Jaco van der Westhuyzen may be stymied too much by having Du Preez as his halfback partner, and the midfield.
De Wet Barry and Wayne Julies, a most incongruous combination if ever there was one, were paired up by the end of the game, and this just about said it all.
Ultimately, this was a match where the Boks should have absorbed a few lessons. Let’s hope that the coach is not too stubborn to take heed.
France – Tries: Cedric Heymans, Vincent Clerc 2 and Damien Traille. Conversion: Dimitri Yachvili 2. Drop-goals: Damien Traille and Florian Fritz. Penalties: Dimitri Yachvili 2.
South Africa: Try – Brent Russell. Penalties: Percy Montgomery 7.
Click here for our live text commentary