South African rugby fans will be hoping a few new faces will breathe fresh live into their team as they host Italy in Durban on Saturday.
South African rugby fans will be hoping a few new faces will breathe fresh live into their team as the Springboks host Italy in Durban on Saturday.
Coach Heyneke Meyer's time at helm as been marked by constant criticism of his perceived conservative tactics and selections but for the first time in a long time most Bok fans have reacted positively to a team announcement.
Although he will start at full-back, the inclusion of Cheetahs wing Willie le Roux has gone a long way to appease the masses. Like Le Roux, Jano Vermaak will also make his Test debut and although the Bulls second-choice scrum-half's selection is less controversial, it hardly comes as great surprise considering Francois Hougaard's lacklustre form.
Meyer will be the first concede that he has never been one to make sweeping changes but what the South African public has not always given him credit for is his ability for long-term planning. The message for patience coming from the Bok camp has not really been received by their supports due in equal parts to the slowness of change and the public's expectation for results – and entertainment – now.
The new faces in the squad – that also include Trevor Nyakane, Arno Botha and Jan Serfontein on the bench – not only represent the Boks taking a step towards preparing for the next World Cup they're are also a mark of Meyer's ambition to evolve the Bok gameplan.
That might all sound like music to the ears of fans who want to see more expansive rugby, but they shouldn't get too excited just yet.
Yes, Meyer is looking to the future, but a Springbok doesn't change it's spots overnight, no matter now many Cheetahs you put into the team (or mixed metaphors you put in the preview).
“Six of the eight players who made up the forward unit in the last test of 2012 against England are back for the game against Italy,” remarked Meyer mid-week.
Both those changes – at number eight and at loosehead – are due to injury (or a return from health issues in the case of Beast Mtawarira ).
Continuity has always been the name of Meyer's game and changes will be subtle. Rather than taking an all-new approach, Le Roux will has been called on to add spice to an old recipe.
I tried to convince a South African colleague early this week that Italy are capable of ruffling a lot of feathers and should not be underestimated considering their victories over France and Ireland earlier this year. But his response was categorical: “it's Italy! Losing to Italy will never be acceptable for South Africa, no matter how much they have progressed.”
His attitude is typical of the expectation of the local public ahead of the June quadrangular series and it's understandable considering the Azzurri's record against the Boks.
South Africa and Italy have played each other 10 times since 1995, with the Springboks winning all 10 Tests with an average score of 53-13. These teams last met in 2010 in East London. The Springboks won 55-11.
Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, MornÃ© Steyn and Pierre Spies will extend their record for Test caps in their respective positions so there is no lack of experience.
So what of Italy? Coach Jacques Brunel has throw a wild card into the mix by picking a 32-year-old debutant fly-half. Italy's problems at ten are well documented but what Brunel hopes to achieve by 'blooding' Treviso veteran Alberto Di Bernardo is a bit of a mystery.
The rest of the team is a largely settled unit though a young centre combination – Luca Morisi and Alberto Sgarbi – is a sign that, like most teams around the world, a change of generation is at hand. Yet five of the starting XV have played over 50 Tests, and there's the added weight of Martin Castrogiovanni amongst the replacements. Indeed, Italy field a more experienced starting XV with a total of 577 caps compared to South Africa's 426.
Injuries ruled lock Quinton Geldenhuys and flank Simone Favaro out of the three-Test tour to the Republic while loose-head prop Andrea Lo Cicero has retired.
A win against Italy on Saturday would mean South Africa are unbeaten against a Six Nations side for nine consecutive matches. Victory for South Africa will also be their fourth consecutive win, which they haven't managed to do since 2011.
The Rainbow Nation waits in expectation.
Players to watch:
For South Africa: The name on everyone's lips is Willie le Roux, who, despite playing on the wing all year, has been given the nod ahead of Pat Lambie at 15. Le Roux has been a try magnet all season and Meyer admits that the 'X-factor' he brings simply could not be ignored. Expect to see him brought into the line at first or second receiver more than a traditional full-back as the Boks look to add a playmaker to Morne Steyn's accurate kicking, but limited attacking game.
For Italy: Former skipper Marco Bortolami, who turns 33 next Wednesday, returns after a long shoulder injury lay-off and will be expected to lead Italy's infamous physical assault. Of course Alberto Di Bernardo will be the focus of attention as he makes his Test debut and it'll be interesting to see what instructions he is given. Italy have been trying to open up in recent years, will Di Bernardo be told to try his luck?
Head-to-head: Two of the most athletic number eights in world rugby face off as Pierre Spies takes on the classy Sergio Parisse. Both sides have traditionally used their number eights a lot to attack the gainline but their respective launch pads will depend on the battle in the scrums. Meyer has highlighted the scrums as key area where the Boks need to improve, and there are few better sides in the world at packing down than the Azzurri.
2010: South Africa won 55-11 in East London
2010: South Africa won 29-13 in Witbank
2009: South Africa won 32-10 in Udine
2008: South Africa won 26-0 in Cape Town
2001: South Africa won 54-26 in Genova
2001: South Africa won 60-14 in Port Elizabeth
Prediction: Italy have only won twice away from home against a southern hemisphere side. Both wins were against Argentina in 2008 and 2005. South Africa have never failed to score less than four tries against Italy in all previous meetings between the two sides. South Africa by 20 points.
South Africa (revised): 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 MornÃ© Steyn, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Arno Botha, 6 Francois Louw, 5 JuandrÃ© Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14