The Springboks produced a workmanlike performance in terrible conditions to beat Italy 35-6 and record their second win of their November Tour.
Considering the Boks suffered a humiliating defeat in the corresponding fixture last year, there was always cause for concern against the 13th ranked side in the world, but Eben Etzebeth’s side produced a powerful forward performance in terrible conditions to tame the Azzurri and cruise home for an easy win.
It is always tough to gauge the quality of the performance, especially after the big loss to Ireland at the start of the tour, and in the conditions, but the Bok management signalled their intent early in the week by playing their strongest side in a week where the fringe players normally would have taken prominence and in that regard it certainly was mission accomplished.
Still, it is worth wondering that considering how poor the Italian challenge was, if it may not have been more beneficial long term to give players like Lukhanyo Am and Curwin Bosch a run, while Warrick Gelant would have benefitted with more than the 20 minutes of game time that he got.
But that, for now, is a moot point, as on the field, and in a deluge of rain, the Bok team that was on the park did their job well, controlled every facet of play and despite Italy keeping the ball for long periods in both halves, never allowed the home the chance to score.
It was a powerful scrumming performance that laid the basis for the victory, and an equally impressive mauling showing – one that set up the second try and also laid the platform for two others as the Bok forwards revelled in their physicality.
Still, that is what Bok teams are supposed to do to opposition like Italy, aren’t they? And while there are so many more talking points about where Springbok rugby is right now, the first and only objective in this game was always to win.
The weather may have put a damper on the style of play, but this still goes down as the biggest win for the Springboks in Italy since 1997, and will at least bring some relief to an under-pressure coaching team.
There were some great cameos as well – with Bongi Mbonambi stepping into Malcolm Marx’s shoes with ease and putting in a performance worthy of praise, grafting his way around the park and popping up at the back of the rolling maul for the second try to underline why he is more than just a bench replacement.
Duane Vermeulen and Francois Louw worked as a unit, hungry for action and did enough to leave the Italian players with bruises as they tackled them back from all areas of the park. Both will be sorely missed against Wales next week but showed just how important international experience is to this side.
Handre Pollard’s return to kicking form was just one aspect of a performance that the home adjudicators gave him the man-of-the-match award for, and the flyhalf provided a crucial link in the backline, asked questions of the defence when needed and while he still isn’t back to his best, had improved significantly from a week before.
Pollard’s linking with Francois Venter was just as impressive and there was enough shown over the past two weeks to suggest a long-term combination that may well benefit Springbok rugby immensely in the future.
But like all Bok performances, there were still so many questions. The back three suffered from poor decision-making, and there are still questions about their form as a combination, while the Boks made crucial errors at times when they should have powered ahead.
Ross Cronje’s passing under pressure poses many questions as well, as the Bok backs have struggled of late to get good clean service.
And while this was a good performance against Italy, given the disappointments of this year, it is tough to gauge just how much they have improved in a week since the patchy French win.
Wales will provide a more in-depth litmus test for Allister Coetzee’s side, and they will have to brave Cardiff without Vermeulen and Louw, as well as Elton Jantjies and Franco Mostert as they go searching for a season-ending victory.
But given what happened in Florence a year ago, there will be more than just a sigh of relief from the Bok camp this time around and they deserve to enjoy a clinical, workmanlike performance in poor conditions.
Bigger tests await, but this was a pothole they could have fallen into like last year. The fact that they negotiated it with ease should be greeted with some applause, but not a standing ovation.
South Africa – tries: Francois Louw, Bongi Mbonambi, Francois Venter, Steven Kitshoff and Franco Mostert. Conversions: Handre Pollard (5)
Italy – penalties: Carlo Canna (2)