The Springboks have beaten Italy in 13 out of 14 encounters yet it’s the memory of the one they didn’t that still lingers.
The 2016 catastrophe in Florence is one of the most embarrassing rugby moments in recent history. It encapsulated everything that went wrong during Allister Coetzee’s reign. For the Italians it was their magnum opus; for South Africa it was rock bottom.
Three years later the opportunity has arisen to not only twist the knife but drive it deeper until World Cup life is snuffed out. They’ll be coming for us too. Just as Rassie Erasmus had the All Blacks encounter in his preparations weeks ahead of the fact, so too would the Italian management have eyed this game as their best chance of escaping from the pool.
Thanks to the failure to realise the plan of beating New Zealand, this game is now also a must win for Erasmus to see the team into the quarter finals. Not achieving that non-negotiable objective would be as shameful as anything Coetzee had to endure.
Erasmus has taken little chances and almost produced a carbon copy of the “senior” team that began the tournament.
He has made just three changes with Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi profiting from the physical task ahead, while lock Lood de Jager comes in for Franco Mostert, who will have a role to play from the bench according to Erasmus.
The Beast and Mbonambi alongside Vincent Koch were formidable in driving the maul forward against Namibia, while De Jager not only managed to get himself a try, but also produced a man of the match performance.
“What Rassie is doing is making sure everybody stays sharp. He has got options and he’s got cover, but that’s what he is doing,” former Springbok World Cup winner and current Varsity Cup coach at North-West University André Pretorius said as he chatted about the game with the Mail & Guardian.
“We need a performance like the Namibia game. We need to be clinical like that. We created a lot more than we did against the All Blacks and did not rely on individual performances. There was some nice constructive tries in that game.
“Our defence is one of the most difficult to face, and with a few tweaks here and there along the way, along with 100% efficiency, we can really go on to win this World Cup, but the attack must complement the defence.”
Erasmus also eulogised De Jager after the lock had overcome a year out of the sport to reassert himself as a master at the lineout. And although Namibia may be considered unworthy opponents to stake a claim, De Jager has a chance to make the number five shirt his own going through the rest of the tournament.
Driving forward, opportunities will open up for both Makezole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe on the wing as the game nears its end, with the Italians’ stamina a questionable feature on the evidence of their harrowing Six Nations display.
It goes without saying that this a vastly different Bok team that floundered in 2016. They are stronger than their beleaguered counterparts in almost every respect: this side is mentally fitter, more cohesive and is far less error-strewn (even though some still annoyingly creep in). Yet, 10 of the 23 in the matchday squad are haunted by their dubious participation in that game.
“It wasn’t a nice feeling obviously,” Damian de Allende recalled this week. “What I can remember from that game is we played quite loose. Their forwards dominated us, especially close to our tryline and also close to theirs. They stopped a lot of our mauls and they contained us quite well. It was three years ago, I haven’t looked at it since.”
This Italian iteration is no less dogged and their pack is part of the reason why Erasmus found it necessary to name a bench full of forwards. The South African director of Rugby named only two back replacements: Herschel Jantjies and François Steyn. It’s a move in keeping with the coach’s predilection for not switching out his fly-half during the game and is why Elton Jantjies misses out once more. Another controversial implication is that veteran Steyn is being relied on to cover 10 to 15.
“He can go with a 60-40 [forwards to backs] split on the bench in the big games,” Pretorius, himself a former flyhalf, said. “Not that Italy isn’t a big game. They are a test playing nation, but yes he has the option of going 5-3 or 6-2 if he needs to because he has so many options.
“Frans Steyn is on the bench. He has played as a flyhalf. He is experienced and he will provide cover in the backline in this game.”
The Azzurri forwards have gained perhaps excessive praise from South Africa’s assistant coach, Matt Proudfoot, who has hyped them up to the level of those of the All Blacks and England.
With Sebastian Negri and David Sisi embodying their brute strength that physicality reflects through the entire team.
“People may think it is a gamble to have only two back replacements but we want to have plenty of ammunition for what is likely to be a major forward battle,” Erasmus said.
The coach will feel, as favourites, his side should control the tempo of the affair. Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk hinted as much when he revealed that any Japanese wet weather will only inspire them to look send the ball into the air more often than usual. Expect a ruthless imposition of the South African game from the off as the Boks look to quell the nerves and turn it into the routine matchup it should be in theory.
With Jesse Kriel joining Trevor Nyakane on the sidelines – and Eben Etzebeth’s future involvement somewhat opaque – Erasmus can’t afford any more destabilisation on the route to the knockouts. First priority is getting there of course but exorcising the Italian demons from the squad in as convincing a fashion as possible will be vital to building the necessary momentum to push for a final. Pressure is something his predecessor often succumbed to; his ability to rise above it will define his own tenure.