An international coach’s work is never done. New Zealand’s Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith might spend Saturday evening celebrating their country’s second clean sweep of the four home nations, an event only to be forestalled if Scotland achieve the unlikeliest of victories. Instead they will almost certainly be in front of a television studying the action from Paris.
England may on Saturday be looking to add dash to bash against the Samoans at Twickenham, while Wales seek succour against Australia, but there is little doubt France v South Africa is the match that will compel All Black interest. These are the teams – South Africa as their only conquerors in an otherwise triumphant year, France with a history of scrambling the Kiwi psyche – who threaten the All Blacks’ one true ambition, reclaiming the World Cup after a 20-year gap in 2007.
Both are building up momentum – the Springboks with their best back-to-back Tri-Nations campaigns in the tournament’s 10-year history, Les Bleus looking the most dangerous team in Europe.
Snow is forecast for the Stade de France but it is unlikely to cool the heat generated by two of the most physical packs in rugby. Any doubts France’s Pieter de Villiers had about the usual warm front-row welcome from his erstwhile compatriots will not have survived news of the South African recall for Os du Randt, while there is a ferociously epic back-row contest in prospect as Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Jacques Cronje crash into the exciting new French combination of Yannick Nyanga, Julien Bonnaire and Remy Martin.
France must be wary of South Africa’s ability to create and capitalise on turnover ball. But they should also have noticed a demonstration of less familiar talents last week against Wales, highlighted by a try created by sucking defenders into the breakdown, then recycling so rapidly that gaps were inevitable.
Ultimate beneficiary of that superbly sustained piece of combined play was wing Bryan Habana. He scored within a minute of his debut against England last year and has not stopped since, crossing 15 times in his 14 Tests.
Habana, 22, is no languid stylist but a coiled streak of nervous energy, tensed and whippet-like with footballing skills as well as pace. France know all about Habana after conceding four tries to him in two summer Tests.
Acting on the maxim that prevention is the best form of cure, they will be doing their best to keep him fully occupied defensively by fielding their own force de frappe, a back division including five players from Toulouse and a centre pairing – Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz – likely to have the most uncompromising opponents wondering if they should not perhaps have taken up another sport.
Stay on the front foot, maintain possession and continuity and the French have a chance of keeping Habana quiet. If they don’t, their only chance may be to invoke a different sporting tradition and equip his marker with a set of skis.