Preview: France v Springboks
The Springboks face the toughest assignment of their November European tour at the Stade de France on Saturday against a French team with a point to prove.
When they left South Africa at the start of the month most pundits thought that Six Nations champions Wales, with their pride of Lions, would provide the Boks with the stiffest challenge, but the events of the past fortnight have drastically changed that view.
Indeed, France's seven-point loss to New Zealand two weeks ago was the closest anyone has come to beating the All Blacks this year and many - especially the French players on the pitch that night - felt that were it not for a handful of marginal calls, the result could well have been very different.
Despite France's miserable run of results this year, anyone who witnessed that game would think twice before betting their life savings on the Springboks, who have never beaten les Bleus at this venue.
But, as Heyneke Meyer has sought to remind us, the Boks didn't "come to Paris to do sightseeing."
"We have taken a lot of bogeys off our shoulders this year, such as by winning away games in the Rugby Championships and by winning in Brisbane, and we want to break the losing sequence we have against France in France that extends now to 16 years," said the Bok coach this week.
And it's hard to deny that South Africa have a determined look about them - Wales were beaten inside twenty minutes. Scotland were simply crushed.
There is no secret to the Bok plan, and simple as it is, very few have a hope of standing in their way. Meyer believes "if we play to our ability and get our plan right, it doesn't matter what the opposition bring."
Well, maybe not.
It's true that South Africa have the capacity to steamroller teams and with a pack that outweighs the French by an average of seven kilos per man (117kg v 110kg) don't expect them not to try do what they do best on Saturday.
But as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The last time the Springboks were in France, they were simply outmuscled in Toulouse where a pumped-up French side dominated them at scrum time.
Since taking over at the helm, Meyer has put shoring up the Bok scrum high on his priority list and, with the help of former France prop Pieter de Villiers, that mission has largely been successful.
The French will nevertheless see the set piece as an area where they can ply the pressure and Springbok tighthead Coenie Oosthuizen will be under the spotlight.
"Around the globe in the last year the French scrum earned the most penalties and conceded the fewest..it will be a scrumming test for us," admitted De Villiers.
While France certainly have the capacity to challenge the South African scrum, it remains to be seen if they have the keys to unlock the Bok defence, which has yet to concede a try on tour.
The hosts are a far less settled and far less experienced unit (the French starting XV has 381 Test caps compared to South Africa's 694) and it will be interesting to see the effect last week's morale-boosting win over Tonga has had on their self belief.
Word from inside the camp is that spirits are high and after a dismal year that has seen them win just twice - against Scotland and Tonga - Philippe Saint-André's team are desperate to prove a point: France are still a force to be reckoned with.
Players to watch:
For France: Back in 2010, Wenceslas Lauret made his Test debut in Cape Town, where the touring French were given a hiding. Three years and just three caps later, the Racing Metro flank has returned to the international scene a much stronger, more mature player. Saint-André has emphasised the importance of the first tackle and stopping the big Bok runners early. Having been rested against Tonga after an outstanding performance against New Zealand, the 24-year-old has a very important job to do. Lauret can expect plenty of help from his skipper, Thierry Dusautoir, who will captain France for the 41st time this weekend, one short of the record held by Fabien Pelous.
For South Africa: After all that talk about the Boks' bruisers it's worth noting that South Africa's most potent attacking weapon at the moment is one of the smallest guys in the squad. Willie le Roux provides the deadly counter-attacking sucker punch once the forwards have softened up the opposition with a series of body blows. His addition to the side this year has made the Springboks a very different animal. Quality props are in short supply at the moment and Lourens Adriaanse will make his Test debut if he comes off the bench. It won't take long to find out if he can cut the mustard at this level.
Head-to-head: The midfield battle between Florian Fritz and Jaque Fourie promises to be a cracker. Fritz's abrasive, no holds barred style has earned him the label of "a South African in a blue jersey" in certain quarters of the French press. Beyond putting in big hits (he was France's top talker against New Zealand) he has a massive boot that could prove useful in the territorial battle. Fourie built a reputation as one of the best centres in the world in his heyday, but has been disappointing since his return this month. Meyer has given the 30-year-old his full backing, playing him for all 80 minutes of both tour games so far but if the 2007 World Cup-winner doesn't catch up to the pace of Test rugby soon, his goal of playing at the 2015 RWC may be in jeopardy.
2010: South Africa won 42-17 in Cape Town
2009: France won 20-13 in Toulouse
2006: France won 36-26 in Cape Town
2005: France won 26 -20 in Paris
2005: South Africa won 27-13 in Port Elizabeth
2005: Draw 30-30 in Durban
2002: France won 30-10 in Marseille
2001: France won 20-10 in Paris
2001: South Africa won 20-15 in Durban
2001: France won 32-23 in Johannesburg
Prediction: Saturday's match will only be the third time these two sides have met at the Stade de France. South Africa lost 20-10 there in 2001 and 26-20 in 2005 and on a cold night at the end of their season, a tough battle awaits. But we reckon the Boks have enough left in a tank for one last big push. South Africa by less than five points.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Sofiane Guitoune, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Rémi Talès, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Wenceslas Lauret, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 20 Yannick Nyanga, 21 Jean-Marc Doussain, 22 Frédéric Michalak, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud
South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 21 Siya Kolisi, 22 Jano Vermaak, 23 Patrick Lambie.
Date: Saturday, November 23
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 20:00 Local (18:00 GMT)
Weather: 7°C. Cloudy
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
By Ross Hastie