Preview: Italy v South Africa

Date published: November 21 2014

Fans in South Africa who are assuming Saturday’s clash with Italy will be an armchair ride for the Springboks had better think again.

Fans in South Africa who are assuming Saturday’s clash with Italy will be an armchair ride for the Springboks had better think again.

South Africa will win. Of that we can be fairly certain, but it will not be a stroll in the park, not by a long shot.

In the past three years, both Ireland (remember them?) and France have gone to Italy with full-strength teams and lost (twice in the case of les Bleus). Australia won by just three points there in 2012 and England needed a couple of late penalties to sneak a positive result the same year.

Samoa were well beaten a fortnight ago and Argentina – one of the few teams in the world able to match Italy’s scrum – were lucky to get away with a two-point win last week.

So, considering that the Bok scrum is unlikely to be going forward, it’s little wonder that Heyneke Meyer has resisted the temptation to overhaul his entire team.

Those in the South African press calling for wholesale changes “to give fringe players exposure” need a reality check. The All Blacks’ haphazard battle to get past Scotland last weekend was a perfect illustration of the perils of lining up an unsettled, second-string team at this level.

After a false start to their tour in Dublin, the Boks are looking to gain momentum and build on last week’s win at Twickenham, not start from scratch.

With question marks over how the scrum will perform, tossing continuity out the window for the sake of experimentation would be a risky business. A shaky start is the last thing they need. Being in control of the game when it’s time to make more changes via the bench and expose newcomers to Test level is a more reasonable approach.

Again, I’m not suggesting Italy have a realistic chance of winning – the 44-10 scoreline in Durban last year highlighted the gulf between these sides – but on home soil the Azzurri pack will be a different beast.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. With three veteran forwards taken out of the pack that beat England, the new props and Teboho Mohoje, who is back in starting XV, must stamp their authority on the game. South Africa’s firepower in the backline will easily outgun their counterparts but only if they are given a platform to do so, and Italy are masters of the arm wrestle. A lot of hard work will be needed in the trenches.

For coach Jacques Brunel’s side, the promise of a new dawn has failed to materialise as progress has been much slower than the Frenchman had hoped.

They really should have beaten Argentina last week having controlled the game for long periods. They simply lacked the hammer in attack to land the killer blow. Another agonisingly close loss must be hard to swallow for Sergio Parisse and his men, who looked distraught at the final whistle.

Even with the promising addition of Kiwi import Kelly Haimona at fly-half, the Italian backline remains impotent and their chances of coming away with a positive result will rely on Haimona’s boot pinning the Boks back and their pack doing a spoiling job at the breakdown as they hope to strike on the counter and pick up points from scrum penalties.

They’ve beaten big teams before, but another upset seems like a long shot.

Ones to Watch

For Italy: Former Taranaki loose forward Samuela Vunisa will make his debut for Italy as he takes over from Simone Favaro in the Azzurri number seven jersey.

Having made a mark with the Fiji U19 and U20 teams, he moved to Italy in 2011 to join Calvisano. Fast forward three years of Italian residency and Vunisa was called up for the November Tests after impressing for Zebre, for whom he has started all seven Pro12 games this season.

Standing 1.89m tall, the 26-year-old will bring 115kg worth of Polynesian grunt to the Italian back row. “We’d been following Sam for the past year and a half…Now it’s time we tested him at international level,” said Brunel on Thursday.

For South Africa: Once hailed as the next great Springbok fly-half, Johan Goosen is bit lucky to even be in the Bok frame having moved to France without ever cementing is place in the squad, due partly to a series of injuries.

It’s not like he’s been shining for Racing M