PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa scored two tries in a minute in the second half on the way to beating France 37-14 on Saturday, securing a pressure-relieving win for coach Allister Coetzee.
The Springboks took a 1-0 lead in the three-match series and, more urgently for their coach, ended a four-test losing streak that hung over Coetzee's team from last year, the worst season in their modern history.
"We've closed the chapter on 2016," Coetzee said.
"Don't go there, my man," he then told a reporter who wanted to dwell on the Boks' dire performances of last season. "The door's closed."
The Springboks lost eight out of 12 tests in 2016 and ended with four straight defeats. And while the Boks' series lead against France didn't come off an outstanding performance, a win will ease some of the grinding pressure on Coetzee, who survived a review at the beginning of the year to keep his job.
The victory over an experimental French team in South Africa's first test of 2017 was made comfortable only midway through the second half, though.
A penalty try and a try from scrumhalf Ross Cronje on debut, with those scores coming in quick succession in the 60th and 61st minutes, turned the Boks' narrow 16-14 lead into a 30-14 advantage. Center Jan Serfontein added a late try, finishing a break from another of South Africa's five debutants at Loftus Versfeld, fullback Andries Coetzee.
France tested a new-look South Africa's nerves when replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin sniped over in the 55th to make it a two-point game with the Tricolors' second try.
South Africa had plenty of possession and swathes of territory in the first half but couldn't find a killer blow — perhaps a hangover from 2016 — until fullback Coetzee broke for hooker Malcolm Marx to set up center Jesse Kriel for the first of South Africa's four tries in the 31st.
Henry Chavancy took advantage of a tricky bounce of the ball on South Africa's line to get France's first try, with the persistent French fighting back from 13-0 and 16-7 deficits before the Springboks finally ran away in the last 20 minutes, when their intensity in the first hour and the hard work of their forward pack told on the French.
"We were dominated physically, individually, and collectively," France coach Guy Noves said.
The penalty try at 16-14 may have been the turning point, though, and it was touch and go.
France fullback Brice Dulin was penalized for an early tackle on Courtnall Skosan as the South Africa winger chased a kick through and appeared set to score.
South Africa was given a penalty try, and Dulin was yellow-carded. It was a tight call.
Against 14 men, South Africa added two more tries. Cronje went clean through after a lineout move 60 seconds later and Serfontein outpaced Virimi Vakatawa to finish near the right corner.
Coetzee gave four players debuts in his first starting 15 of 2017 — Cronje, Andries Coetzee, and wings Skosan and Raymond Rhule — and there was a fifth debutant off the bench in an attempt to shrug off the dire form of last year. Hooker Marx was making his first start and Warren Whiteley captained South Africa for the first time.
"Our whole goal this year was to take it one game at a time," Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth said. "We've now got one out of one."
But, the fact that Noves did not pick his strongest team should also add perspective to the Springboks' first win since beating Australia 18-10 at the same stadium last October.
Noves made 11 changes to the team that ran out in France's last game in the Six Nations and didn't pick any Toulon or Clermont players after they were involved in last weekend's Top 14 final.
Noves declined to talk in detail about being depleted. Those stars are in contention for the second test next weekend in Durban.
Coetzee said there's no doubt the French will be a tougher prospect in the second test, and his team had to improve again: "It has to be better next week. It has to be spot on."