The Springboks were outscored in the second half as they laboured to an unconvincing 29-13 win over Italy.
On a surprisingly warm day it was disappointing to see so many gaping holes in the 22 000-seater Puma Stadium, as only 16 512 spectators pitched up. The Boks didn’t produce the clinical showing they were hoping for, while the Italians successfully managed to get under their skin in a game typified by off the ball scuffles.
The hosts’ handling was also sub standard, and it was this shortfall that saw the Italians win the second half 10-7 after trailing 22-3 at the break.
From the first kick-off, the Italian players were in front of the kicker, which handed the Boks an early test of their scrum. That area was expected to be their biggest challenge and Gurthro Steenkamp in particular had a point to prove coming up against tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni for the first time since being schooled in Leicester last November.
Steenkamp silenced the detractors with a solid scrum on Bok ball, and pressured Castro on the Italian feed. Steenkamp also won a penalty and when Castrogiovanni left the field with an injury after the first quarter, Steenkamp had successfully exorcised the demons of eight months ago. The Bok loosehead also performed well against replacement Lorenzo Cittadini, whom Italy coach Nick Mallett rates highly.
Bakkies Botha returned for only his third game in eight months, and was influential in shoring up the Bok scrum and with his menacing presence around the field. Botha departed after 49 minutes but will again be grateful for next week’s Test, which provides another opportunity for him to gain match fitness ahead of the Tri-Nations.
Butch James’s comeback to the Bok fold after nearly a two-year hiatus in the unfamiliar position of inside centre was characterised by some monstrous hits in the midfield. Jean de Villiers also started in his unfavoured position of No 13, but the pair had very few attacking chances in a match typified by forward exchanges and kicking. James’s afternoon was marred by referee Andrew Small’s over-reaction to a high tackle, which saw him yellow carded after 55 minutes.
As expected, the visitors relied largely on a kick-chase approach, and while Zane Kirchner dropped the first high bomb and Italy’s first points came from Bryan Habana’s indecision, the Boks were largely solid under the aerial threat.
Italy offered little penetration on attack, but Habana’s decision to run from deep led to Italy’s first points as they forced a turnover and won a penalty in front of the posts. Mirco Bergamasco handed his side the lead, but that was the last time they would edge in front.
Steyn leveled the scores after 15 minutes, and then Habana claimed his side’s first try. Victor Matfield stole the lineout and from a crisp James pass and a well-weighted Kirchner grubber, the Bok winger collected. Habana almost scored his second three minutes later, but was impeded by Italy fullback Luke McLean in chasing his chip, which Small failed to penalise.
On 31 minutes, the hosts added to their tally when Francois Louw dived over in a similar fashion to last week’s score against France. The Azzurri had a clear plan to stand off and not counter the Bok maul, but their patience let them down as the Bok pack held theirs.
The Boks struggled early on in the second half, with Ricky Januarie’s laboured service and the shrill blast of Small’s whistle thwarting their progress on many occasions. After nine minutes Chiliboy Ralepelle’s pop pass and Steyn’s injection of pace sent Kirchner over for the fourth Bok try.
James’s sin-binning halted the momentum, while it also cost the Boks seven points when Sergio Parisse scored for the Italians.
But on his return, James moved to his favoured position of flyhalf. Ruan Pienaar was also granted a rare chance in his preferred spot of scrumhalf for the final 16 minutes, but that wasn’t sufficient time for the pair to show their worth.
The two sides will meet in East London next week and while Mallett will make as many as 10 changes, the Boks should do the same and rest players such as Steyn and Matfield in order to test new combinations.
By Grant Ball, in Witbank