South Africa beat Italy in Padua
This was a Springbok performance hard baked in the furnace of resolve and resilience. Enthralling it was not. Heart warming? Yes!
The Springboks absorbed biting cold, the gentle but inexorably soaking rain and a fired up Italy team.
The tourists warmed to their task and played with a level of control and coherence rarely displayed this season. To be fair, there were some encouraging signs at the Stade de France last week.
In the build-up they had tried to avoid talk of retribution for last year’s sins. There was none of Florence. If anything this match carried the hallmarks of the Springboks’ ruthless 28-0 deconstruction of Scotland in 2013.
Yes, Italy have been poor with a solitary win over Fiji all they have to show since they vanquished the Boks a year ago, but the visitors still had to face up and ultimately to a determined and pretty passionate home side.
They needed to front up to the physical confrontation and captain Eben Etzebeth’s ‘speak softly while carrying a big stick’ policy paid off this week.
The biggest stick they prodded Italy with came in the unrelenting shape of flank Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Du Toit and Francois Louw were immense, Duane Vermeulen stood tall when he needed to but to be fair, the entire Bok pack deserve kudos.
Du Toit however was quite remarkable. He delivered a towering performance, carrying the ball with bone jarring ferocity into the Italians, while they felt the same impact in the embrace of his tackle.
His sheer work rate was phenomenal and the value of a big ball carrying Springbok number seven in the northern hemisphere cannot be underestimated.
Think Straeuli, Venter, Rossouw, Smith and more recently Alberts.
Ross Cronje was incisive in the first half, so too was flyhalf Handre Pollard. His direct running was just what was needed on this occasion.
This time his goal kicking hit the spot.
With a greasy ball and on a pitch only 62m wide, the forwards were always going to do the bulk of the carrying.
The maul in particular proved a go-to platform. Both teams relished the deployment of the human caterpillar, eschewing a pot at the poles for a pop to the corner.
It were the Boks however who profited more. The Italians were repelled in their drive for the line in the 19th minute and had to settle for a penalty which the canny Carlo Cana converted.
The Boks however seized their chance when Bongi Mbonambi was at the bottom of the heap in the 24th minute.
Their opening try was a wonderfully constructed effort which was a testament to determination and patience.
The timing of the try was good as Italy held the ascendancy for the bulk of the first quarter.
Their advances were repelled and gradually their appetite diminished. Even a player with the lingering lustre of Sergio Parisse eventually shortened his stride.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Some of the Boks out of hand kicking, particularly from fullback Andries Coetzee was distinctly ordinary.
On at least two occasions it invited pressure onto the tourists which was eminently avoidable.
Similarly, the high ball brought occasional angst. A few line-outs went astray but let’s nip the nitpicking.
This was resilient display but the Boks cannot afford to admiringly stare too long in the mirror.
Wales await next weekend and the Dragon will only be slayed if the Boks build on this performance.