France expect a brutal clash with South Africa in their World Cup quarter-final, but strategy will probably play a more important part at the Stade de France, where physicality and sheer power will not be enough to go through on Sunday.
Defending champions South Africa have built their success on a powerful and skilful pack but coach Jacques Nienaber sprung a surprise when he selected a lighter, more mobile version of the team who started the tournament to face France.
He named a new halfback pairing of Manie Libbok and Cobus Reinach, veteran Duane Vermeulen at number eight and only five forwards on the bench – down from seven against Ireland in the pool phase.
Two days before the Stade de France clash, the mind games cranked up a gear as France coach Fabien Galthie went from his usual 5-3 forwards-backs split on the bench to a 6-2.
Galthie, who will also have talismanic scrumhalf Antoine Dupont back in his side three weeks after undergoing surgery on a broken cheekbone, looked very happy on Friday and had a slight smirk on his face when he was asked about his choices.
“It’s a chess game. This morning we were thinking about what we could propose ourselves. We’re entering a world of strategy and tactics, and we’re relishing the challenge,” he said with a chuckle.
The Springboks seemingly changed their side with one eye on how they think France will play, taking a different approach with less emphasis on brute power.
“The one thing that’s probably a little bit different about this French side is their kicking game,” Nienaber said.
“They have made no bones about preferring not to play with the ball, they give you the ball and then try and suffocate with a very good defensive system that forces errors.
“So, you have to find strategies around that and that probably talks to our team selection.”
France won the last meeting between the two sides 30-26 in the cauldron of Marseille’s Stade Velodrome last November and Sunday’s atmosphere in Paris should also reach boiling point as the hosts put four years of improvement under Galthie on the line.
Les Bleus have rediscovered their touch and added a brutal efficiency to their game to become one of the most exciting France teams ever to watch.
While South Africa have won the World Cup three times, France have yet to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, having lost three times in the final.
They also suffered a painful 19-15 defeat in the 1995 semi-final against the Springboks.
Most matches between the two teams have been extremely physical and those who watched South Africa’s 13-8 defeat against Ireland will know that even if they are trying to introduce some subtlety into their game, the Springboks will have a combative approach.
“It was violent (last November against South Africa). We’re expecting more of the same. I think they’ll stay true to themselves,” said France flanker Charles Ollivon.
“They don’t go out onto the pitch to have a chat, they like to go for it head on and step on their opponents, that’s their mentality. There’s going to be a lot of intensity. We’ll be ready.”
The winner will face either England or Fiji in the semi-finals in Paris.