Italy produced a tigerish defensive performance to beat the Springboks 20-18 in Florence and record their first Test win against South Africa, reports JON CARDINELLI.
Allister Coetzee's Boks have made history for all the wrong reasons in 2016. In June, they became the first Bok side to lose a Test to Ireland on South African soil. In August, they became the first side to lose to the Pumas in Argentina. In October, they conceded nine tries on their way to sustaining their heaviest ever Test defeat at home.
Last week, they lost 37-21 to England to become the first South African team to lose to the English in a decade. Even their biggest critics would have expected them to bounce back against Italy in Florence this Saturday. For those who may have already forgotten, Italy lost all of their Six Nations games this season, and lost 68-10 in their recent match against the All Blacks.
Yet, when referee George Clancy blew the final whistle in Florence on Saturday, it was the Azzurri who raised their hands in celebration. Italy battled hard for 80 minutes, and may have scored seven more points at the death if lock Marco Fuser had not put a foot into touch in the act of scoring a try. They played a smart and hard brand of rugby in wet conditions, and deserved to come away with their first-ever Bok scalp.
Credit to coach Conor O'Shea and especially to defence consultant Brendan Venter. On the day, Italy produced a defensive performance for the ages. They dominated the collisions and the breakdowns, and got off the line quickly to keep the dangerous Bok backs on the back foot.
For the Boks, the result against Italy could be viewed as the nadir of the 2016 nightmare. While they've suffered several embarrassing losses already this season, the defeat to lowly Italy in Florence was something else. The Boks have well and truly hit rock bottom.
The Boks never appeared to be up for this encounter. Their efforts at the collisions lacked aggression and accuracy. They were outmuscled and outfoxed at the breakdown.
Their tactics could also be questioned. A Test match in Italy is bound to witness an ugly scrap at the breakdown. A northern hemisphere referee is bound to allow a contest at the rucks. Why then did the Boks show so little tenacity at the tackle point?
Italy made a couple of defensive errors in the first half which allowed the Boks to score. Willie le Roux set Bryan Habana up for a try in the ninth minute – his 67th in Test rugby – while Damian de Allende scored from a turnover in the 17th. After the first quarter, the Boks enjoyed a 12-7 lead.
They then blew several opportunities to score in the dying moments of the first half. Again, credit should go to Italy's defence. They stopped the Boks' rolling maul on several occasions. In one sequence of play, they held the Bok attack for 19 phases.
The Boks went to the break with a 12-10 lead. One would have expected them to break away in the second stanza, to find another gear and to put a team ranked 13th in the world to the sword. As it was, they battled to stay in the physical fight and were no match for Italy's clever tactics.
Fuser overstepped the line when he drove into the back of Lood de Jager in the 42nd minute. The lock was shown a yellow card, and many may have viewed that incident as the beginning of the end for the feisty minnows.
But Italy stuck to their task. While they were aided by a limp and largely rudderless Bok attack, the hosts must be commended for keeping the Boks out during that period.
Immediately after losing Fuser, Italy were forced to defend their tryline for three straight minutes. The Boks only managed to score three points in Fuser's 10-minute absence.
Then the panic started to set in. Individuals started to drop the ball or send passes straight into touch. The small crowd at the stadium started to find its voice around the 55th minute, as if it knew that the home team was on the brink of a special achievement.
Italy held the ball for 10 phases, and then breached the Boks on the left wing. Giovanbattista Venditti brushed Elton Jantjies aside as if he were a primary school player. Edoardo Padovani added the extras to give the hosts the lead.
The Boks battled to win field position in the final quarter. They failed to control the ball during that period. There was no leadership, no sign that they may pull this one out of the fire.
Italy maintained their composure and physicality in the final moments. And when they won a penalty with only a couple of minutes left on the stadium clock, the crowd cheered as if they had already won the game. They failed to score that late try through Fuser, but they did enough to claim a famous win.
The Boks drew with the Barbarians in the first match of the tour. Since then, they have lost to England at Twickenham, and now to Italy in Florence. Nobody will be betting on them to beat Wales in Cardiff next week, especially after this shambolic performance.
Coetzee's Boks will finish the year with a win record of worse than 50%. Unless they beat Wales, they will end the year without a win away from home.
Italy – Tries: Dries van Schalkwyk, Giovanbattista Venditti. Conversion: Carlos Canna, Edoardo Padovani. Penalties: Padovani (2).
Springboks – Tries: Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux. Conversion: Pat Lambie. Penalty: Lambie, Elton Jantjies.
Italy – 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Giorgio Bronzini, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Andries van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Sami Panico.
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Simone Ferrari, 19 George Fabio Biagi, 20 Abraham Steyn, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Tommaso Boni.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Teboho Mohoje, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Johan Goosen.
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP