SO South Africa have won a Test at the third post-isolation attempt but, after offering due congratulations, it is pertinent to wonder whether this is the way rugby should be played and specifically whether this is how the Springboks should play it.
Kicking the ball to kingdom come (an old Currie Cup stratagem), as Naas Botha did incessantly and efficaciously at the Stade Gerland, is adequate to beat opposition as callow and neurotic as the French. But if - it is an enormous if - France pull themselves together in Paris next Saturday they will surely win and where would that leave the Springbok master-plan?
Moreover, if England play half decently at Twickenham a fortnight after that, the Springboks, on this evidence, will fare even worse. Saturday's was a game when everything was subordinated to the absolute necessity of winning. Fair enough, but it cannot continue. Springbok joy as the players slumped to the ground in ecstasy at the end was unconfined, though their rugby was, quite deliberately, joyless.
Victory was the only justification John Williams, the coach, needed. 'The fact is that we sat down and picked a team to win a Test,' he said. 'It is easy to build when you are winning, not when you are losing. People get tired of excuses all the time.' On the other hand, he did agree that improvement would be required this week, let alone before South Africa play at Twickenham.
The Springbok approach was eerily reminiscent of England's when they did the Grand Slam in 1991. Their big, powerful forwards serviced an outside-half who gained vast tracts of ground each time he put boot to ball. Their dangerous outside backs were never - not once - given the freedom to move that their quality warranted.
But then if it is a kicking game you want, there is no one better to implement it than Botha. The debate, most of it anti-Botha, that had been raging in the South African press had left the selectors, of whom Botha is one, unmoved. There was, they said, never any question of omitting their captain - even though there were plenty of players prepared to say privately that they could not function alongside him.
In the end, Botha won the man of the match award given by French television and felt he had been vindicated. Thus when he was asked, by the very journalist who has been his severest critic, if he felt he had answered his critics, he was only too happy to reply directly. 'It was very nice to be man of the match, especially coming from the French, because from you guys I can't really expect anything.'
Botha has been particularly upset by the allegation that he was selected simply because he was a selector. 'That's really unfair to a player like me. You don't think we are childish. We are honest enough and if I wasn't supposed to be in the side I wouldn't be. I think I have proved that I still deserve to be in the Springbok team.'
Perhaps if South Africa had lost, if France had had a few more minutes, he would have had to think differently. The Springboks had had cause for gratitude for France's chronic proneness to error, especially in the first 50 minutes - by which time South Africa were 20-3 ahead. As Robert Paparemborde, the French manager, put it: 'You cannot hope to win Test matches if you play for only one half.'
Tactically, they were ill-advised in persistently working the blind side and taking the ball back to the forwards, because if there is one place you can guarantee Springbok strength it is at close quarters. It would have been far better to have stretched play as wide as possible so as to pull the robust but lumbering South African back row about the field.
By the time it happened, it was too late. Aubin Hueber's approach at scrum-half was naive in the extreme and he compounded the problem by his dreadful handling - a failing that extended through the back division. Add to this Sebastien Viars's place-kicking fallibility, six misses from eight shots at goal whereas Botha kicked three from four, and you have to say this was a match France lost more than South Africa won.
Where the French, until the two second-half tries by Alain Penaud with which they narrowed the gap, were headless chickens, South Africa had theirs firmly screwed on. They had their plan, based of course on the captain, and there was something preordained about it when Botha first dropped a goal and then kicked a penalty.
Danie Gerber, otherwise neglected as an attacker, showed sprightliness beyond his 34 years to outpace the French for the injury-time try which took the Springboks to a 13-point half-time advantage, and when James Small did the same shortly after the interval France were in disarray.
French sides of the past would have self-destructed but, at its moment of crisis, this one pulled itself together. Abdel Benazzi, more a tactical substitute than a replacement, went on to bolster the pack and, although the French assault tended to be from longer range than they would have wished, it nearly sufficed.
So in the end history was made - South Africa won an official Test match for the first time in eight years - and was not made - France have still never beaten South Africa in France. Marc Cecillon's team paid the price of underestimating the Springboks, who may have much to learn but at least are doing so fast.
Underestimated the Boks - and, by the coach's own candid admission, overestimated themselves. 'I certainly overestimated the standard of this French team,' Pierre Berbizier said. 'You must never be more arrogant than intelligent.'
France: Tries Penaud 2; Conversion Viars; Penalty Viars. South Africa: Tries Gerber, Small; Conversions Botha 2; Penalty Botha; Drop goal Botha.
FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Saint- Andre (Montferrand), F Mesnel (Racing Club), C Deylaud (Toulouse), S Viars; A Penaud (Brive), A Hueber (Toulon); L Armary (Lourdes), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), P Gallart (Beziers), J-M Cadieu (Toulouse), O Roumat (Dax), J-F Tordo (Nice), M Cecillon (Bourgoin, capt), L Cabannes (Racing Club). Replacements: A Benazzi (Agen) for Cadieu, 50; P Benetton (Agen) for Tordo, 64.
SOUTH AFRICA: H Reece-Edwards (Natal); J Small (Transvaal), D Gerber (Western Province), P Muller (Natal), J Olivier; N Botha (Northern Transvaal, capt), G Wright (Transvaal); J Styger (Orange Free State), W Hills (Northern Transvaal), H Rodgers (Transvaal), A Geldenhuys (Eastern Province), A Malan (Northern Transvaal), W Bartmann (Natal), T Strauss (Western Province), A Richter (Northern Transvaal).
Referee: B Kinsey (Australia).Reuse content