France and South Africa played out a brutal Test match in Marseille last year
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It was Steven Kitshoff who delivered the most chilling warning of what to expect at the Stade de France on Sunday evening. “You’re going to have to go to a dark place quite early in this game,” he grimaced.
And as the flame-haired South African prop continued, the lengths to which his Springbok counterparts and their French foes might have to go in order to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final were laid out even more clearly. “Because of where the physicality is going to be, it might get to a point where some players haven’t been and we will see if both teams are willing to go to that dark spot,” he concluded ominously.
South Africa’s 13-8 group-stage defeat to Ireland has been the most compellingly physical match of the tournament so far. The No 1 and No 2-ranked sides knocked seven bells out of each other in a vintage display of pure Test match rugby, but Sunday’s quarter-final might just top it.
The Springboks are renowned for their intensity and sanctioned brutality on the rugby field – it has long been their calling card. Opposition used to try to out-think or go round, rather than through, them and, while this sometimes worked, the South Africans often prevailed. See the 1995, 2007 and 2019 World Cups for examples.
Now, the best teams seem to have tacitly acknowledged that you need to physically match, or even bully, them as Ireland so brilliantly did last month.
“When teams play against the Springboks, they always talk about the physicality of the game,” smiled Kitshoff. “Ireland and Tonga were probably two of the toughest games I have played all year. We always try to make it as physical as possible but we know France are going to bring a lot of physicality.”
Steven Kitshoff has warned both teams will have to go to a dark place in Sunday’s quarter-final
The almost anti-Springbok stereotype of the flashy, unpredictable France side fuelled by Latin flair has dissipated. They are, of course, still capable of mesmerising brilliance through the likes of Damian Penaud, Matthieu Jalibert or returning captain Antoine Dupont – whose recovery from a fractured cheekbone has given the whole country a lift – but the tired ‘you don’t know which France will turn up’ cliché has long since been disproven.
They are a well-oiled, ruthless machine under Fabien Galthie, who are more than willing to go toe to toe with the South Africans up front as proven last November in Marseille when they ground their way to a brutal 30-26 triumph over Jacques Nienaber’s men in a gruelling Test match that saw both Dupont and Pieter-Steph du Toit sent off.
“Violent is the right word,” said France flanker Charles Ollivon when reflecting on that clash this week. “We’re expecting the same kind of match. We know the South African style. They’re well prepared to make a physical mark on their opponents. They’ll stay true to themselves. We’ll be ready.”
Dupont’s cheekbone, fractured after a high shot from Namibia captain Johan Deysel during the pool match between the sides, had become a topic of national conversation and debate. His quickfire, three-week recovery that enabled him to be named in the starting line-up for this quarter-final gives a spark to Les Bleus and the 80,000 fans who will pile into the Stade de France – even though his deputy Maxime Lucu admirably stepped up in his absence for the tail-end of the pool stage.
Antoine Dupont will wear a scrum cap for added protection as he recovers from a fractured cheekbone
“Having him back gives us a lot of confidence,” admitted fly half Jalibert. “He puts a fear in the opponents, they try to find solutions to counter him and that gives us more space. Even in a scrum cap [Dupont will wear the headgear at the request of his surgeon to provide added protection], he will be playing at 100 per cent of his ability.”
Facing South Africa, of all teams, while still recovering from a facial injury is perhaps not ideal but the scrum half is ready for the challenge and sounds prepared to go to that ‘dark place’ that Kitshoff claims will be required.
“In matches with these levels of intensity, there’s always pain, whether physical or mental,” said Dupont. “We have to be willing to suffer to achieve what we want. We have very high goals. We know what we have to do and that it’s going to be very tough from start to finish. If we’re not ready for that, we’re not ready to go where we want to go.”
With promises of suffering, pain, violence and dark places, this won’t be a clash for the faint-hearted, but the rewards for those who can dig deepest in Paris will be huge.
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