The Jake White view: Is this France's Madiba moment?
Let me tell you a story. In 2007, I was in Marseille preparing the Springboks for the quarter-final game against Fiji. During the week, I saw a few All Blacks coaches that I know.
One guy was Mick Byrne, their skills and kicking coach. We had a little chat and parted ways. A few days later we bumped into each other again at the Old Port, the night before the quarter-final in Cardiff against France. A few of the staff were still there, so I said, ‘What’s happening, why aren’t you in Cardiff?’ They said, ‘Well, the decision’s been made for some of us to stay behind and prepare for the next week’.
History tells us that there was no next week and they had to fly to meet the squad at Heathrow to fly back to New Zealand. The lesson I took from that is if you start worrying about what happens next week, you won’t get through this week. The bottom line is you can’t do anything that will help you in the future, it’s all about the here and now. That’s why France felt compelled to get Antoine Dupont back on the field.
I can guarantee you that when Dupont runs out in a scrum cap, it will be like Madiba (Nelson Mandela) coming out in 1995 in a Springbok jersey. Our slogan in 1995 was, ‘One team, one country’ and it brought the whole country together. When I see France playing in this tournament, with the singing, chanting and energy in the crowd, it looks a little bit like that. The TV audiences are massive and it feels like the whole country uniting to support Les Bleus. It’s deja vu. I feel like I’ve seen it before.
Do you remember the last words said at the 1995 World Cup Final? A broadcaster said to Francois Pienaar, ‘There are 65,000 people here supporting you’, and he said, ‘No, we didn’t have 65,000 South Africans supporting us, we had 43 million South Africans.’ So on Sunday night, we’re not playing a team, we’re playing a nation. That’s the biggest challenge for the Springboks. You can’t underestimate national fervour and pride. If the Boks make it through, they will feel emboldened that they can win the World Cup for a fourth time.
As someone who has watched every tournament, I told you from day one what an advantage it is to have a home World Cup. From experience, it’s not the people in the stadium that intimidate you. It’s the ones you meet in the restaurants during the week or walking around the villages. Those personal interactions tell how much this means to the locals. Again, it’s like 1995 in South Africa. We opened up the tournament by beating the reigning World Champions, Australia, at Newlands and then we had controversy in the French semi-final before facing the mighty All Blacks in the final. That competition had everything; suspensions, injuries, drama. The lot. The parallels are uncanny.
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Again, the return of Dupont will be a massive inspiration to his team. I can just imagine what it would have felt like in that team room when the doctor cleared him to play. It would have made the players feel an inch taller.
Whether it comes off or not, that’s the risk you take, but 60-70 minutes of Dupont is worth solid gold to France. Even if he has a quiet game, he will inspire players around him.
The interesting thing about this French team is that they are so balanced and dare I say, normal. If you look at Mauvaka, Baille and Atonio, they are as good as any front row in the competition. Jelonch, Alldritt and Ollivon are as good as any back row. Dupont is the best player in the world and not many teams could replace a player of Ntamack’s quality with a player like Jalibert. I’ve also been impressed with the maturity shown by Jonathan Danty and Gael Fickou. They look like they’ve played for years together. Then you have Damien Penaud, who has just turned 27 and is about to break the try-scoring record of the great Serge Blanco. There’s been little fanfare, little glitz, but what a player.
There’s a historic perception in South Africa that with France you just want to avoid them when they’re in the mood, but correspondingly they can have periods where it goes off-script. Having coached in France that’s a strength and weakness of their psychological make-up. When they say they’re ready, boy are they ready, everything is switched on. Indeed, I coached the Boks against them a few times and we struggled to beat them. They came to South Africa and beat us, and we lost in Paris. However, I also remember asking my old Montpellier team after a mystifying loss and said, ‘What happened?’ and they said, ‘Well, we weren’t ready’. Whether it was lost in translation or whether it was just the mindset wasn’t right, I don’t know, but that inconsistency dogged French sides for decades.
In saying that, this is a different French team. Having Shaun Edwards in the coaching set-up and Fabien Galthié and Rafa Ibanez, who have both played overseas, ensures there is more of a pragmatism to their play. Gone are the historical tears during the anthems, the hot-headed Latin temperament and mass changes to the team. This is a cool-headed, pragmatic French team who are ice-cold under pressure. That’s the management’s greatest achievement; to get the squad to buy into a different mindset.
As for the Springboks, this week has reminded me of a book called, ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, and in there, there’s a quote that says, ‘if you react to your enemy you are in a position of weakness.’ I mention this because this week South Africa announced their team later than they usually do.
Keeping the fans waiting until the last minute is a departure from how the Springboks usually do it. They routinely announce the team early, which comes across as, ‘We know what we’re doing, we know what we want, we know how the team is going to play, and it doesn’t matter what the opposition are doing’. This week, however, it’s been mind games, Rassie’s been on social media toying with a 7-1, 8-0 split and now we see it’s a 5-3 split. I think the French probably expected a bit of fun and games but I’m not sure if the delay works. We will only find out on Sunday night.
What has been interesting is that Rassie has spoken more in the last two weeks than he has in the last four years. I don’t know how Jacques feels about it because you don’t hear much from him, but maybe it’s a tactic to keep Rassie at the forefront. It feels like as the heat has come on, he’s in the driving seat and Jacques has taken the back seat.
Selection-wise, I see the Boks have gone back to the tried and tested. He’s gone for Cobus Reinach, who has experience of playing in France but that experience but on the bench he has Handre Pollard, Willie Le Roux and Faf de Klerk to close out the game, which is massive. You sense that all the social media comments were just a smokescreen to take the focus off the Boks, to leave them to prepare.
One thing in the Boks’ favour is experience. When I coached in 2007, and I told the squad, ‘You’re going to win the World Cup’. I said, ‘Look at Os du Randt, he has won this magnificent tournament’. It was all talk until 20 minutes before kick-off when I saw in their eyes them thinking, ‘he’s won this before, what a massive achievement’.
It’s then you realise what it means to those who want their own piece of history, but then I said, ‘We have one winner, but England have about 13 World Cup winners in their squad and that’s who we’re facing tonight’. I’d say don’t underestimate the value of the experience South Africa have in that changing room. Players who have been there and done it. I don’t think South Africa are worried, because in all but name, this is a World Cup Final, but that home fervour could just swing it for Les Bleus. Whatever happens, it will be a game for the ages.
By Jake White