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CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South African rugby faces a fierce examination by France in a three-test series this month as the Springboks attempt to prove they have put a disastrous 2016 behind them.
South Africa suffered a record eight defeats in 12 tests last year, including a first home loss to Ireland and a humiliating away defeat to Italy, as Allister Coetzee’s tenure came under heavy pressure after less than a year in the job.
He has strengthened his backroom staff in a bid to turn around the team’s fortunes with the Rugby Championship against Argentina, Australia and world champions New Zealand coming up from August to October before end-of-year tests in Ireland, France and Italy.
The Springboks play France on Saturday at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria with the second test in Durban on June 17 and the last at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 24.
“We have no excuses for our poor performances of 2016 even though last year was an extremely challenging season," the Springbok coach said. "Our below-par performances will never be acceptable and we will have to turn it around."
The addition of Cheetahs coach Franco Smith as attack coach and World Cup-winning centre Brendan Venter to look after the defence has bolstered hopes of a change in fortunes.
Coetzee has also put his faith in a substantial selection of players from the Lions, South Africa's form team in Super Rugby, with number eight Warren Whiteley the new Bok captain.
While the bulk of the France squad arrived in South Africa last week, coach Guy Noves arrived only on Tuesday with six players from Sunday’s Top 14 final in Paris, leaving preparations for the tourists decidedly undercooked.
Their squad is also light on experience with several uncapped players expected to be used in the three tests but Coetzee is well aware of their threat.
“There is one thing about the French – if you don’t respect them you can find yourself punished at the end,” he told reporters this week.
France expect South Africa to be much improves from last season.
“South Africa remains a formidable nation with powerful, fast-paced players and all the qualities to beat anyone,” French centre Gael Fickou told reporters on Tuesday.
“It is also true that their staff has changed and I expect it’ll be another team that comes out on Saturday."
France have won six times previously in South Africa, the last at Newlands in Cape Town 11 years ago. They have suffered 10 defeats and five draws in away tests against the Springboks.
Editing by Peter Rutherford