Rugby Union: Mesnel makes French magic

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France Espoirs. .24

South Africa. . .17

THEY say that age shall not weary them, and Danie Craven, a few days short of his 82nd birthday, proved he is still agile enough to turn a ceremonial kick-off into a tricky little reverse heel. But if South Africa's tireless old campaigner appears to have discovered the secret of eternal youth, the tour opener here showed that the passing years have been anything but kind to Springbok rugby.

In losing to a scratch French 'Espoirs' side, Naas Botha's Springboks were evidence that the worst fears of the deep and lasting effect of their international isolation are more than justified.

Craven's footwork was about the most imaginative South African feat of the day and although the Springbok pack performed at times with admirable efficiency, especially in the third quarter, as soon as the French stepped up the pace, or sparked the slightest unorthodox move, the vulnerability in defence was catastrophic for an international side. 'It is never easy to begin a tour, especially after an absence of 10 years,' Botha said. 'Of course, losing is a big disappointment for us, but we just have to go on from here.'

The French scored two tries to one - a try to each of their wings - while, just as symbolically, South Africa's only touchdown went to their storming second-row Drikus Hattingh, one of few to impress. Botha, steering his young charges from stand-off, showed glimpses of his skill, mastering the blustery wind conditions and repeatedly gaining 50 or 70 metres with finely judged touch kicks. But more often than not these precious gains were immediately frittered away as the Springboks' defence was cut to shreds by repeated French counter-attacks.

One senior French coach likened the South Africans to the Romanians of 10 years ago, and while such words must pierce the hearts of generations of former Springboks, on Saturday's performance the 1992 team are still only a shadow of glorious predecessors.

In the second half, for instance, they appeared to lack the mental hardness and killer instinct of the past. In the 20 minutes after halftime, the South African pack had clearly taken control. First Botha scored with a mighty drop goal, followed by Hattingh's try two minutes later. Down by 8-14 with 15 minutes to go, the French were on the ropes and a steamrolling Springbok win looked certain.

'We lacked discipline and we lacked concentration,' Botha said. Whatever it was, the Springboks let the game slip away while the inspired French, who had never considered themselves as anything but the underdogs, started to run the ball from everywhere.

Franck Mesnel, who may have won back his Test place, led the charge with some incisive running. He was well supported by Olivier Campan, a young and promising full-back, David Berty, the pacy right wing, and Leon Loppy, the Senegalese flanker who proved anything but a token black.

France Espoirs: Tries Berty, Hontas; Conversion Lacroix; Penalty Lacroix 4. South Africa: Try Hattingh; Penalty Botha 3; Drop goal Botha.

FRANCE ESPOIRS: O Campan; P Hontas, T Lacroix, F Mesnel, D Berty; C Reigt, J Cazalbou (capt); L Benezech, F Landreau, S Graou, D Sanoko, H Chaffardon, X Blond, L Loppy, J-J Allibert. Replacements: Martos (for Graou, 77); M Courtiols (for Blond, 40); D Mendic (for Allibert, 78).

SOUTH AFRICA: H Reece-Edwards; D Oosthiuzen, F Knoetze, P Muller, P Hendriks; N Botha (capt), R du Preez; H Rogers, J Truscott, K Andrews, A Geldenhuys, D Hattingh, P Pretorius, I MacDonald, C Strauss. Replacements: T van Rensburg (for Oosthuizen, 50), H Le Roux (for Hendriks, 60).

Referee: E Morrison (England).