The Springboks’ accuracy at the breakdowns and in front of goal will be under scrutiny this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI in Padua.
The Boks plan for it. They talk about it at length and often make promises about meeting a certain standard in the public sphere.
Come game day in a fixture played on Italian soil, however, the South Africans so rarely live up to the physical hype.
We saw that in Florence last year. We saw that when a far more experienced side struggled to put Italy away in a stop-start, maddeningly shapeless fracas in Padua in 2014.
The Boks beat an abject French side 18-17 in Paris last week. They will face a poor Italy side at the Stadeo Euganeo this Saturday – the Azzurri have lost nine out of 10 Tests this year and are ranked 13th in the world – but have absolutely no reason for complacency. It’s a game the Boks should win, but a game they could well lose.
It was around this time last year that I was telling anyone who would listen that the Boks would never lose to Italy. In the end, the side coached by Conor O’Shea and patently influenced by defence guru Brendan Venter should have won by more than two more points.
In April, Venter joined the Boks as a defence consultant. He remained a consultant for both the Boks and Italy until last Sunday, when he parted ways with the Boks. To clarify, Venter returned to South Africa this week and won’t be in the Italy coach’s box this weekend.
Nevertheless, I find myself asking the same questions now that I did seven months ago: can someone coach two Test sides at the same time without there being a conflict of interest? Even subconsciously or inadvertently a coach in that position may find himself betraying one side or another with strategies and ploys that slow and kill the momentum of the opposition.
It may be a moot point now, though. The Bok are without a defence coach, and without lineout coach Johann van Graan, who took up a head coach post at Munster this week.
Allister Coetzee and his lieutenants have talked a good game this week, but how could the loss of two key coaches not detract from the team’s preparations?
They’ve talked a big game with regard to the mood and spirit in the camp. The reality is that Coetzee’s days are numbered.
The Tests in Padua and Cardiff will be his last with the Boks. We shouldn’t expect the Boks to make any significant strides as far as game plan and player development is concerned over the next week or so.
All that said, you want to believe that the misguided and mentally shot Boks are still too strong for Italy. There may indeed be a scrap for 60 minutes this Saturday. But as was the case in 2014, and indeed when Argentina visited last week, the tourists’ superior fitness in the latter stages will be decisive.
Keep an eye on the performance of the Bok back row. Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen won’t be available for the fourth and final tour clash as it falls outside the Test window and they will need to return to their clubs in England and France. Surely they should be looking to deliver a showing that gives the next Bok coach, effectively Rassie Erasmus, a reason to include them in plans for the 2018 and 2019 seasons?
Handré Pollard finds himself under pressure, at least from a goal-kicking perspective. The flyhalf missed a conversion and three penalties last week and would have been crucified if the Boks had lost.
There’s no denying that he is the Boks’ best option in general play, though. Francois Venter also appears to be the strongest inside centre in the absence of Frans Steyn and Jan Serfontein.
The Bok loose forwards need to embrace the stop-start, no-holds barred, cage-fighting nature of this encounter. While discipline will need to be maintained – Romain Poite is blowing the game, hopefully figuratively rather than literally – the Boks have to show Italy who’s boss. Bongi Mbonambi and Venter will also have a key role to play at the breakdown.
Sergio Parisse has been highlighted as a threat at the maul and the collisions. The Italy captain may look to disrupt the Boks at lineout time. The visitors will have something to prove after an unconvincing lineout showing against France.
In 2014, the introduction of players like Pollard, Willie le Roux and Nizaam Carr in the second half changed the flow of the game. One would expect this Bok side to enjoy similar attacking success when the yet-to-be-capped Warrick Gelant makes his way on to the park this Saturday.
A win against Italy won’t save Coetzee’s job. It will give the Boks their second win in seven Tests and allow them to take momentum into the 2017 finale in Cardiff.
A convincing display will give South Africans reason to believe a three-from-four return on this tour is possible. Nobody would have called it after a record loss to Ireland in Dublin.
It all starts with physicality, though. The Boks have to win the gainline and they have to control territory in the first half. If Pollard kicks his goals, the side should win by a comfortable margin.
Springboks – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Franco Mostert, 20 Dan du Preez, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Warrick Gelant.
Italy – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Boni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Giovanni Licata, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Francesco Minto, 20 Renato Giammarioli, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Matteo Minozzi.
Photo: AFP Photo