South Africa finally got their end-of-year tour off the mark as they stuttered along to a 32-10 win over Italy in Udine on Saturday.
South Africa finally got their end-of-year tour off the mark as they stuttered along to a 32-10 win over a determined Italy outfit at the Stadio Friuli in Udine on Saturday.
The Springboks will take the win, but this victory will do nothing to their self-esteem or credentials on this somewhat unrewarding trip of Europe that has only dented their title as world champions.
A comedy of errors from the visitors – most of them in the scrum against the Azzurri – didn't help the South Africans' cause to stamp their authority on a game that was touted as a warm-up for next week's finale against Ireland.
In front of another passionate home crowd, the Italians were their own worst enemies as the goal-kickers – in a repeat of last week's defeat to New Zealand – missed a number of penalties that would have given the scoreline a bit more respectability.
However, be that as it may, Italy were still able to stay in the contest at half-time after trailing 12-7 but failed to keep the pressure on as the men in green and gold ran in a further two tries to seal the deal.
It was South Africa's first win in their fourth match on tour, but while the final scoreline was emphatic enough in the Springboks' favour it was not the rousing performance that might have been hoped for to erase the memory of the past two weeks.
The Springboks scored four tries, all of them to the backs, and it was a day where the South Africans should have been exceedingly thankful that they had a massive advantage behind the scrum.
For the umpteenth time on this tour, the Boks were pummelled in the set-scrums and if the truth be told, Italy's comfort in most aspects of the forward battle should be taken as a loud warning ahead of next week's big match in Dublin.
When playing the world champions as heavy underdogs the last thing you want to do is pay for some early indiscipline. But in his first start for Italy, flanker Simone Favaro charged upfield and hit scrum-half Fourie du Preez with a stupid late tackle that earned him a yellow card and resulted in a simple penalty in front of the posts.
Morne Steyn produced a most uncharacteristic mistake by missing, however the South Africans quickly struck with a great try which was fashioned by a break from Ryan Kankowski for Bryan Habana to capitalise on the quick ball that was spread out wide in the sixth minute.
Steyn missed the conversion but just after Favaro was allowed back on, Habana beat Matteo Pratichetti on the outside and slipped the ball inside for Jaque Fourie to score under the posts.
Steyn finally landed a kick and with 14 minutes gone the hosts were already 12-0 down. It looked as though it might be one-way traffic, but up to that point there had yet to be a set scrum. When the teams did finally scrum down, the Italians were as solid as a house, and completely destroyed the Boks with the second scrum of the match.
Italy continued to improve and should have scored as Alessandro Zanni broke to within a metre of the line but his support was slow in reaching him and the Springboks cleared their lines thanks to a trademark Heinrich Brussow steal.
Italy's first shot at goal had to be taken upstairs to decide whether the ball had in fact managed to squeeze in between the uprights. Gower was convinced, but the TMO was not and with 30 minutes up on the clock, South Africa held on to their 12-point lead.
But the former Australian-born rugby league international finally came good a few minutes later as he gave a subtle inside pass to centre Gonzalo Garcia with Alberto Sgarbi acting as a decoy.
Completely flummoxing the Springbok backline, Garcia ran in untouched for a splendid touchdown that was clearly scripted to aim at one of the Bok weaknesses. Steyn held his line, but Adi Jacobs didn't hold his, and the try was all too easy. At 12-7, and with the scrum flying backwards, the Boks were in big trouble.
There was still time, though, for both Italy full-back Luke McLean and Steyn to miss penalties before the break.
Six minutes into the second period Steyn landed a penalty before McLean missed his second of the afternoon after Italy's scrum caused the kind of problems that had the All Blacks struggling a week ago.
But on 53 minutes, the Springboks scored after more calamitous Italian defending as Danie Rossouw broke a tackle on the left-hand touchline. The Bok flanker slipped the ball inside to Habana who cut inside and popped the ball to Du Preez, who held off Zanni and Mirco Bergamasco to score.
Gower soon pulled back three points from a penalty after his own midfield break but Steyn replied on 64 minutes to make it 10-25.
As Italian legs started to tire, gaps appeared and Du Preez scythed through following a line-out and fed replacement Wyand Olivier to score by the posts – his first in 26 Tests – with another replacement in the form of Ruan Pienaar converting.
With Jacobs struggling so much with his defensive game, and Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll licking his lips about his rematch with the Bok team that beat the British and Irish Lions in mid-year, the smart money should be on Olivier wearing the number twelve jersey at Croke Park.
But the area that should come under most scrutiny in the build-up to the final game of the tour is undeniably the front row. And against the Italians, this may be a timely pointer to the Springbok management as they consider their options.
Man of the match: Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie were prominent in the Bok backline along with Heinrich Brussow in the forwards, but our vote goes with number nine Fourie du Preez who once again showed his running ability, kicking ability and try-scoring ability.
Moment of the match: All the tries scored in this match were gems, but we think Du Preez's touchdown after the break was what the Boks needed to shut the Italians out.
Villain of the match: Assistant referee James Jones appears to not like the colour green and gold. He was the man in charge during the Wembley defeat, penalizing the Boks unjustly at the breakdown, and was at it again – albeit from the touchline – today. As Bryan Habana attempted to save a touch-finder, the Welshman ruled the winger to have put a foot in touch when Habana was in fact…. in the air! Oh, and the Italians scored a great try from the ensuing line-out.
For South Africa:
Tries: Habana, Fourie, Du Preez, Olivier
Cons: Steyn 2, Pienaar
Pens: Steyn 2
Yellow card: Favaro (Italy, 4mins)
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Matteo Pratichetti, 13 Alberto Sgarbi, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Craig Gower, 9 Simon Picone; 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Simone Favaro, 5 Quintin Geldenhuys, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1