France and Boks play mind games as Sunday’s Saint-Denis showdown draws nearer
Hosts France and world champions, the Springboks, threw out a few jabs via the press in the build-up to Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarterfinal in Saint-Denis.
Modern rugby is as much about planning and executing tactics as it is about managing the referee.
The buzzword is about creating positive “pictures” for the referee, and this week France and South Africa subtly tried to implant thoughts into the heads of this weekend’s officials.
The mind games at Rugby World Cup 2023 started in earnest on Tuesday beneath Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros. Springboks director of rugby Rassie Erasmus took his seat at the main media centre press room with a warm smile and a cold eye.
It was a classic Erasmus masterclass of compliments and digs, as he praised France and called them cheats, all in the same sentence.
On the edge
Les Bleus and the Springboks square off in the fourth and final quarterfinal of the weekend and it’s clear that there is a real edge to this one.
Despite Erasmus’ cameo in front of the world’s media, where he portrayed a man and a team relaxed and in control, the Boks may have revealed some of their nerves and blinked first through their actions.
By delaying their team naming until Friday, an unprecedented move in the six years Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been involved, did they allow France a small mental victory?
They are usually the team that boldly presents the squad to the world, days in advance, as if saying to the opposition: “This is what we’ve got, this is who we are, now come and beat us.”
Instead, they have veered away from that policy this week. Erasmus admitted it was tactical. The French might see it as a small psychological win by forcing the Boks to change their approach.
Bok players knew by Wednesday how the team would look, but RasNaber wanted to keep France guessing for a little longer. It’s unlikely to have perturbed the French much, although they are holding off naming their team until after the Boks.
Picking a scab
Erasmus also picked at a scab when he accused France of simulation tactics when it comes to perceived high tackles. Naturally that went down like a soggy soufflé.
“They [France] don’t have high emotions and low emotions, it’s just a steady, brainy, intelligent team,” Erasmus said with a broad smile.
“But… what I think they do well is when they get hit close to the high [tackle] line, they really show that to the referee. They do simulate sometimes a little bit, which is clever.” Are you listening, match officials?
The French shrugged.
“I don’t think there’s a lot to interpret. Rassie is well versed in this kind of exercise,” France forward’s coach William Servat sniffed.
“We know the intensity South Africa brings to a match. We know how tough they can be. I have no interpretation to make of what he said. What’s important is to make sure our players are prepared.”
Erasmus’ comment – delivered in his usual off-the-cuff style where he makes a seemingly innocuous statement buried as a subclause in a sentence about something else – was pointed.
He was firing a shot across the bows of referee Ben O’Keeffe, giving him a nudge to remember that every Bok tackle might be milked for maximum gain.
Les Bleus will want to get the frothing Parisian crowd into the game quickly, and nothing better than a big tackle on returning wunderkind Antoine Dupont would elevate French moods to high dudgeon.
Dupont will be in protective gear; he’s coming back from face surgery and stands as a totem for French rugby. The Boks will have to be extremely cautious about how they tackle the little maestro, and O’Keeffe will have to be wide awake to any gamesmanship.
The world champions will have to be picture-perfect.
France also emerged in their pre-match media engagements with a clear strategy to mention the Boks’ “physicality” as much as possible. It did make you wonder if there was one of those internal squad games on the go, where someone has to sneak a word like “teapot” into a rugby conversation.
Only it wasn’t just the word “physicality”; the French were portraying an opponent that likes to “hurt” you.
They left the implication of illegality hanging in the air like cigarette smoke in a busy Parisian pavement brasserie. The irony is though, that the Boks have not conceded a yellow card at the tournament.
“As long as the spirit of our team is there and the players are willing to make sacrifices, these teams can do incredible things. Every nation knows how difficult it will be when they play South Africa,” Servat said.
“South Africa are a team that makes a mark; a big and strong team. They cultivate this and bring a physical dimension that makes it difficult for teams playing them.
“The French team, with our Latin side and our pride, our players were able to rise to the challenge not long ago in Marseille.
“We’re preparing for this kind of thing, and the match will be of a rare intensity, as it was in November. I hope the medical staff [on duty] are ready because players were queuing up for the concussion protocol [last time].
“One thing’s for sure, the French will rise to the enormous challenge.”
Servat’s petit suggestion of high tackles with the words “concussion protocols” was another calculated remark that France is hoping will filter back to the officials.
“Their DNA, their rugby, is based on physicality,” France No 8 Gregory Alldritt continued from the same bandwagon.
“It’s up to us to put in more intensity than usual for 80 minutes. As we saw in Marseille [in November 2022], they’re a team that stays in the game for 80 minutes. We’ve been warned.
“We have players who also hit hard. We forget that at times. We’re lucky to have players like Damian [Penaud] and Antoine [Dupont]. We also have players like Jo [Jonathan Danty], Uini [Atonio], Peato [Mauvaka], Cyril [Baille], Tao [Romain Taofifenua]… I think we have the weapons to respond. We have to do even better and even more than usual against South Africa, but I’m not worried.”
Loose forward Anthony Jelonch was next on the pulpit: “We’re expecting a very strong team who won’t give up and who will try to get on top of us physically. It’s up to us to respond.
“It was very physical, brutal [last November’s Test in Marseille, which France won 30-26]. We love to come up against teams like that. We’re all looking forward to Sunday. They’ll still be carrying that defeat from November with them. We know very well that this match will be even more intense. We’re ready.”
“Brutal”, “intense”, “physical”, “hit hard”… these are power words that make good headlines. And good headlines get noticed by important people.
Les Bleus are hoping they are noticed by the people that matter on Sunday night. DM