France bolstered for 2nd test in South Africa
With captain Guilhem Guirado restored to the starting lineup as one of eight changes, France is close to full strength and expected to present a sterner challenge to South Africa's fledgling revival in the second test on Saturday.
Hooker Guirado is back to lead France's hopes of keeping a three-match series alive, earning a recall for the Durban game alongside, crucially, the halfback pairing of Baptiste Serin at scrumhalf and Francois Trinh Duc at flyhalf.
The presence of those three alone gives France a more settled lineup against the Springboks, who may have won the first test but are still playing in the shadow of a woeful 2016, which nearly saw coach Allister Coetzee lose his job after just one season.
Coetzee made just one injury-enforced change after the 37-14 win in the first test in Pretoria last weekend, with center Jesse Kriel ruled out with concussion and Lionel Mapoe taking his place.
That means four new caps in Pretoria — fullback Andries Coetzee, wings Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule, and scrumhalf Ross Cronje — all start again in Coetzee's new-look team.
While Coetzee is remodeling the side, his biggest challenge at the start of this season — with two tests against world champion New Zealand on the horizon — has been to rebuild confidence after a morale-sapping run of losses last year.
Last weekend's victory over the French was the Springboks' first win in five tests, a losing run that stretched back to October last year.
That's been forgotten, Coetzee insisted, saying "we've closed the chapter on 2016."
"Baby steps. First steps in the right direction," he said after the first test.
While the Springboks showed superior physicality at Loftus Versfeld — France coach Guy Noves said his team was "dominated physically, individually and collectively" — South Africa's victory still wasn't consummate.
There were only two points between the teams with 20 minutes to go when a tight call to award South Africa a penalty try broke open the game for the home team.
Continuity in selection will help South Africa improve further, Coetzee said, as the Springboks start a new season with new combinations almost everywhere: There's a new hooker, a new second-row pairing, a new loose forward combination, a new captain in Warren Whiteley at No. 8, a new scrumhalf-flyhalf pivot, and wholesale changes to the backline.
"Playing together again means that the important combinations are gaining more experience," Coetzee said.
Conversely, Noves has pinned his hopes on change to bring the right result: Tighthead prop Rabah Slimani is recalled alongside Guirado in the front row, Romain Taofifenu is in at lock, Kevin Gourdon at openside flank, Serin and Trinh Duc at 9 and 10, and South Africa-born Scott Spedding at fullback.
Noves also stayed true to his promise at the start of the tour to give as many players as possible a chance by handing 20-year-old center Damian Penaud, the son of former France flyhalf Alain Penaud, his test debut.
"You get the feeling that he has talent," Noves said of the new cap. "So it's for him to express it."
Similarly this France team — stronger and more experienced than last weekend — has the potential to stop a Springboks revival in its tracks.