Springboks beat Italy in the wet
23 June 2008
The Springboks beat Italy 26-0 in a one-off test at Newlands on Saturday, with heavy rain and a soaking field proving a great equaliser as the World Cup winners failed to put an under-strength Italian team to the sword.
The South African line-up showed a number of changes from the one that had secured a 2-0 series victory over Wales with a 37-21 win in Pretoria the previous weekend.
Captain John Smit was unavailable as he was doing duty for Clermont in the French Top 14 semi-finals, so Victor Matfield took over the captaincy, while Butch James was rested and Francois Steyn brought in to replace him at flyahlf.
Odwa Ndungane was handed his debut, Gcobani Bobo was called up to partner his Stormers' centre partner Jean de Villiers, and Ryan Kankowski was preferred to Pierre Spies at eighthman. There were two changes to the front row, with Bismarck du Plessis taking over from John Smit, while CJ van der Linde started at tighthead prop.
The inclement weather certainly undermined the performance of the Boks, making it proved difficult for any of the new men to impress coach Peter de Villiers with outstanding displays; the conditions simply didn't allow for the type of game in which players could express their abilities freely.
Given an opportunity to start at flyhalf, Steyn showed one moment of true inspiration, which resulted in a try, and his booming boot also helped in the tough conditions, but his showing was nothing to write home about.
Ndungane had few opportunities to run with the ball, but he proved solid under the high ball, while Bobo didn't have much work to do in the midfield, either on attack or defence.
For Kankowski, the match was a missed opportunity. Just before halftime, in an attempt to tackle him, he collected a blow from Italian lock Carlo Del Fava's head on his chin, while also being tackled down low. It was a nasty incident – although it was not intentional Del Fava was given 10 minutes in the bin – and Kankowski dropped like a rag doll, out cold.
Joe van Niekerk replaced Kankowski and enjoyed a strong showing in his first outing for the Springboks since 2006.
South Africa took an early lead, thanks to excellent counter-attacking by Bryan Habana. He fielded a kick near the left-hand touchline inside the South African half and immediately took off towards the Italian tryline. Within the space of 40 metres he beat five players and drew a further two to stop him before laying the ball back.
It was fed out to Francois Steyn, who had a full backline waiting to his right. Instead of passing, though, he grubbered the ball behind the Italian defensive line. With no cover defence in sight, he then won the race to the ball and brilliantly scooped it up at speed before diving over for a try.
Steyn converted his own five-pointer to put South Africa into an early 7-0 lead.
Just after the quarter-hour mark the Springboks increased their lead to 14-0 with a second converted try.
From a lineout throw-in, after patiently constructing a well-controlled maul just five metres from the Italian tryline off a lineout throw-in, the Boks simply destroyed the visitors' defences, bulldozing their way over the line, with Bismarck du Plessis crashing to ground for the try.
Matfield's men then won a number of penalties, but spurned any shots at goal, choosing instead to kick for position and attempt from there to score tries from lineouts. Unfortunately for the Springboks, their efforts went unrewarded.
Italy almost scored a shock try five minutes from the break when Steyn, who sometimes tends to kick with a low trajectory, had an attempted clearance charged down. Luckily for the flyhalf, the ball rebounded over the dead-ball line, resulting in a 22-metre drop out.
A minute later, Kankowski was stretchered off, resulting in a long stoppage in play while he treated.
Three minutes from the break, Steyn finally took a shot at goal, but his long distance penalty kick from 55 metres passed to the left of the posts.
At half-time South Africa led 14-0.
With Del Fava still in the sin bin, it took the Boks only three minutes of the second half to score their third try. It came about in a similar manner to their second.
After setting up a lineout five metres from Italy's tryline the home side mauled their way over, with Du Plessis scoring his second try of the game. Steyn missed the conversion, leaving SA with a 19-0 advantage.
With 55 minutes played, South Africa scored their fourth try by finally finding some space on the right flank.
After making some ground early on in a protracted movement, Habana was freed up by nice interplay between Matfield and Tendai Mtawarira. The speedy winger rounded the defence out wide and, with only one player in front of him, then found Mtawarira on the inside. To bellows of "Beeaasstt" from the crowd, the popular loosehead-prop cantered over for the first try of his Springbok career.
Steyn converted Mtawarira's try to extend South Africa's lead to 26-0. His conversion proved to be the last points in the game.
Importantly for South Africa, however, flank Schalk Burger was almost immediately brought on as a replacement for Luke Watson, who excelled in the difficult conditions. It was the first action for the world class flank since he suffered a knee ligament injury against the Highlanders on 26 April.
Peter Grant replaced Steyn at flyhalf and, if anything, brought greater fluidity to the Bok backline. He also showed a willingness to attack the opposition's defences by running onto flat passes at speed.
Another Stormer, Schalk Brits, made his Springbok debut with 15 minutes to play and the skilful hooker impressed with some telling runs.
With 10 minutes until the final whistle, Jean de Villiers made a nice break from deep in the South African half. When met by the cover defence he stabbed through a grubber for Ndungane, who was flying on his outside, to run onto. Sadly for the dreadlocked winger the bounce of the ball favoured the Italians as it went over the sideline with the tryline within sight.
The stuttering nature of South Africa's performance was pretty much summed up in the final movement of the match. After a smart counter-attack from a 22-metre dropout involving De Villiers and Habana, substitute scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar received the ball just outside the Italian 22-metre line, with the defenders scrambling to prevent another try.
Inexplicably, as Pienaar cut first left then right, he lost the ball forward with not one defender close to him.
The 26-0 margin of victory completed a comfortable three-match winning streak for new coach Peter de Villiers before the Springboks get down to business in two weeks' time when they face New Zealand in the first of two away tests in the Tri-Nations in Wellington on 5 July.
It brings together the International Rugby Board's two highest ranked teams, and South Africa's number one ranking will be on the line.
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