by Barnaby Chesterman
South Africa ended a long, hard season with a bruising victory over France in Paris on Saturday and in so doing reaffirmed the difference between the top two in the world and the rest.
Only one team have beaten the Springboks in 2013 and, barring an unlikely upset in Dublin later on Sunday, New Zealand will record the first ever 100 percent calendar year in the professional era.
While there is no doubt that the world champions, beaten only once in the last two years — a stunning 38-21 defeat to England at Twickenham last November — are the best team in the world, South Africa underlined at the Stade de France that they are clearly the best of the rest.
Although the 19-10 scoreline in Paris was relatively close, it did not tell the full story of a masterful display from South Africa.
Twice they were denied adding to JP Pietersen’s second-minute try by the video review system and, although the French did score through Yoann Huget right at the end of the first period, it came from a rare turnover offered up by the Boks deep in their own 22.
Otherwise they largely controlled territory, if not as much possession, and put such a huge amount of pressure on France deep down in the Les Bleus half that fly-half Remi Tales’s kicking appeared ineffectual.
By contrast Boks fly-half Morne Steyn, and particularly the excellent full-back Willie Le Roux, showed measured tactical nous in keeping France pinned down in their own half with a range of deep, long clearances, perfectly weighted up-and-unders and even a few cunning dinks over the fast approaching backline.
One excellent grubber from Le Roux deserved more than to see Francois Louw beaten to the end zone touch-down by a sliding, scrambling Huget.
In truth, France were really holding on to such a close result rather than knocking on the door and threatening to snatch a victory.
It means that this year South Africa have beaten Australia, Argentina and Scotland at home and away, turned over Six Nations champions Wales, earnt victory against France and defeated Samoa and Italy to boot.
If it wasn’t for the mighty All Blacks, this would possibly be hailed as one of the best South African teams of all time.
Captain Jean de Villiers alluded as much to that when he pointed out just how impressive their recent form has been.
Including last year’s November tests — when they beat Ireland and England, as well as Scotland — South Africa have beaten all of the rest of the top 11 teams in the world at least once in the last year — except New Zealand of course.
“We’re very happy with the last 12 months, if you take the end of the last year as well, that’s 13 (wins) from 15,” said De Villiers.
“It makes it results-wise one of the best years South African rugby’s had in a very long time.”
While the All Blacks’ dazzling brilliance is there for all to admire, it is easy to overlook just how talented the Boks are.
As well as their traditional strengths of power and commitment, and an impenetrable wall of defence, they also have creativity brimming through the side, with pace to spare on the flanks in Pietersen and former world player of the year Bryan Habana.
It was in the rucks and at the breakdown that France found them most effective, though.
“They were more solid than us in the rucks where they managed quite a few turnovers,” said France captain Thierry Dusautoir.
The question now for South Africa, is how to take that next step up and challenge New Zealand for the number one spot.
And that’s a conundrum that De Villiers says they are working on.
“For us (beating France) is not the end of the year, it’s just another step in our journey towards where we want to be and where we’re going.” he said. – AFP