Paris – A one-off Test is always important but when France and South Africa line up here on Saturday, winning on the night will not be the only item on the agenda.
Both sides will have one eye on the next Rugby World Cup in Japan which is now just 10 months away.
Both coaches, the highly experienced Jacques Brunel and former Bok flanker Rassie Erasmus, have come into their jobs in the last 12 months, taking over teams that were struggling with identity and results.
Their task is to mould two sides that can challenge the All Blacks in Japan.
Brunel would appear to have the bigger challenge. He replaced Guy Noves last December since when France have won just two of his eights Tests in charge.
“We are looking for the spine,” said Brunel referring to the traditional rugby backbone of hooker, No 8, scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback.
In those five positions, only the hooker Guilhem Guirado looks a certainty for the World Cup.
“Guirado is the captain so that’s a vote of confidence,” said Brunel. “We want him to prove that he is immoveable in his position.”
That means there will be plenty of scrutiny on the rest of the spine, all of whom are returning to the side after time away either through suspension, injury or lack of form.
Experienced No 8 Louis Picamoles returns at the back of the scrum but most eyes will be on the French half-backs, Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez.
Serin has had a yo-yo year, going from first choice scrumhalf down to fifth in line and back into the starting line-up, albeit with Morgan Parra, Maxime Machenaud and Baptiste Couilloud all injured.
Lopez, meanwhile, returns after an 18-month absence and a terrible foot injury. Brunel rates the Clermont flyhalf highly and is desperate for him to lock down the No 10 shirt before the World Cup.
“He (Lopez) has to show us that he is the best in France,” said Brunel who has also plumped for experience and horses-for-courses in choosing Maxime Medard at fullback ahead of Benjamin Fall.
“For the Springboks, territory is all important. We think that Maxime has a longer kicking game than Benjamin. He is one of the most experienced players we have.”
Experience is also fundamental to Erasmus who took over the Bok hot seat in February and has already led them to a rare victory in New Zealand.
Hence his pragmatic decision to bring in Willie le Roux at fullback and Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf as soon as they were available ahead of Damian Willemse and Ivan van Zyl.
Lock Franco Mostert comes in for the injured Eben Etzebeth.
“It’s good to have the experienced players back in the starting team for France'” said Erasmus who is still smarting, like the rest of the Springbok squad, from last weekend’s controversial 12-11 defeat by England.
“We are building squad depth for the Rugby World Cup and they (Willemse and van Zyl) will be back in the mix as the tour progresses.
“The big thing is to build caps and experience before next year’s World Cup.”
South Africa haven’t lost to the French since 2009 but Erasmus is not taking another victory as a given.
“Two years ago, people would have said that playing France was easy, they had a lot of weaknesses,” he said.
“Since then they have changed coach and there is a positive wave.
“It’s going to be a tough one to come out here. Last year the Springboks did really well when they ground out a win (18-17). I think it’s going to be very much the same this year.”
Kick-off is at 22:05 on Saturday.
Players to watch:
For France: One player who will need little motivation for the home side is Louis Picamoles. The behemoth number eight is a superb ball carrier and will be determined to get his side over the advantage line with some barnstorming runs. However, the 32-year-old’s game is not just about brute force as he also has some subtleties in his armoury and his ability to offload in the tackle makes him particularly dangerous.
For South Africa: After delivering one of his worst performances in a green and gold jersey, in last weekend’s loss to England, Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx can consider himself fortunate to be in the starting line-up for this encounter. At his best, Marx is one of the world’s best players and his nomination for the World Rugby Player of the Year award is testament to that. His ball carrying and prowess at the breakdown is excellent but in that Test against England his lineout throw-ins were poor and one of the main reasons for the Boks’ defeat. He will be determined to improve in that department against France.
Head-to-head: The battle between the two flyhalves is always important and both France’s Camille Lopez and Handre Pollard of the Springboks will be determined to prove their worth to their respective sides, albeit for different reasons. Lopez is a man on a mission. He makes his return to the Test arena after an 18-month break due to a serious ankle injury and will be keen to repay the faith shown in him by his coach. Meanwhile, Pollard will be keen to deliver an improved performance after offering little on attack against England and missed a vital penalty late on in that clash. Both pivots will be expected to dictate the pace of the game and lead the way in the playmaking department.
2018: South Africa won 18-17 in Paris
2017: South Africa won 35-12 in Johannesburg
2017: South Africa won 37-15 in Durban
2017: South Africa won 37-14 in Pretoria
2013: South Africa won 19-10 in Paris
2010: South Africa won 42-17 in Cape Town
2009: France won 20-13 in Toulouse
2006: France won 36-26 in Cape Town
15 Maxime Medard, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Damian Penaud, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Cedate Gomes Sa, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Substitutes: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Mathieu Babillot, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Gael Fickou
15 Willie le Roux, 14 S’bu Nkosi, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Cheslin Kolbe