Coetzee's struggling Springboks seek new start vs. France

By GERALD IMRAY - AP Sports Writer ,

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South Africa coach Allister Coetzee waits for the start of the international rugby union test match against Italy, in Florence, Italy.

South Africa coach Allister Coetzee waits for the start of the international rugby union test match against Italy, in Florence, Italy. (Photo: AP)

Allister Coetzee will rely on the success of the Lions Super Rugby team to get his struggling Springboks back on track in the first of three tests against France on Saturday.

The South Africa coach has named seven Lions players in his starting lineup for the Boks' first test of 2017. He had already handed the South Africa captaincy to Lions skipper Warren Whiteley.

Even with France starting the series with a largely experimental side, Coetzee can't be overly confident after overseeing the worst season in modern Springboks history last year.

South Africa lost eight out of 12 tests in Coetzee's first season, including embarrassing defeats by Argentina and Italy, and a record hammering at home by New Zealand.

Seeking a fresh start, Coetzee picked four uncapped players, all in the backline, to take on the French.

Scrumhalf Ross Cronje, wings Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule, and fullback Andries Coetzee are the debutants, with Cronje, Skosan and Coetzee all Lions players. A fifth new cap, utility back Dillyn Leyds, is on the bench.

Allister Coetzee also preferred Lions lock Franco Mostert to Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Lions No. 10 Elton Jantjies will direct the Springboks attack.

"They are in good form so far this season and they will be battle-ready," Coetzee said of his new players.

While South Africa only has seven survivors from its final game of a forgettable 2016 — a loss to Wales — France has also made wholesale changes, 11 of them, from its last assignment in the Six Nations — a victory over Wales.

There are no Clermont or Toulon players in coach Guy Noves' 23 for the first test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria after they played in the recent French Top 14 final.

No. 8 Louis Picamoles is one of the four survivors from France's last game, and will lead the French forwards alongside stand-in captain and lock Yoann Maestri. Regular skipper Guilhem Guirado of Toulon is rested for the first test.

France have fullback Brice Dulin, center Gael Fickou and wing Virimi Vakatawa as survivors of the Wales win in the Six Nations. But scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud and flyhalf Jules Plisson were given starts after being out of favor this year as Noves opted to select a bunch of fringe players for the series-opener.

"We want to try everyone out a bit," Noves said.

Coetzee has predicted an onslaught from a French pack that's especially strong at scrum and lineout time, but it's his own game plan that's been the subject of scrutiny.

The Springboks were tactically inept last season with a badly malfunctioning defense. Coetzee survived a review to keep his job, but some of his backroom staff didn't.

South Africa brought in Brendan Venter as new defense coach and the Springboks' progress there will be tested on Saturday.

The two-time world champion's reputation as a force in world rugby appeared to disintegrate in the space of 12 months last year, going from World Cup semifinalists at the end of 2015 to losers against lightweight Italy a year later.

Coetzee and his coaching staff took the brunt of the criticism and are in the firing line again this week, accused of not doing enough work to prepare for a series against a French squad made up of players that are largely unknown in South Africa. The teams last played each other four years ago.

In a column for alloutrugby.com, South Africa's 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White wrote this week that he and other South Africans who have worked as coaches in France could have provided valuable insight on the French players.

But none of them were contacted by the Springbok management, according to White.

"I find it strange that we're going to war with France, and people are going in blindly," White wrote.

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