BOKS TO SING AGAINST ITALY
Although weary of the Azzurri, Meyer’s men must flex their muscle against the Six Nations’ wooden-spoons
WHEN the Springboks arrived here in this north-eastern Italian city last Sunday evening, they had a local choir waiting for a few hours to welcome them at their hotel.
When the South Africans did eventually arrive just before 7pm, the long wait didn’t dampen the mood of the enthusiastic group, who broke out into a rhythmical beat and even used what were apparently some Zulu phrases in between the Italian.
Among them were a number of local lasses, which led to Bok coach Heyneke Meyer commenting: “It was humbling because we know these people were waiting over an hour for us to arrive here as we were late, and they started singing and it was an unbelievable atmosphere for us.
“On a lighter note, I was worried when I saw all the beautiful girls on the left! But then I saw at least there were guys as well, because I was worried about all the attractions for the players!”
Maybe some of the unattached players would’ve been distracted, but most of the players’ wives and girlfriends joined them in London last week and are still on tour.
The greatest distraction for the Boks heading into Saturday’s clash against the Azzurri is the fact that they beat England last week. That might sound strange, especially as Italy are usually no great shakes and have never beaten the Boks before in 11 outings. The closest they have come to causing an upset was in the 29-13 defeat in Witbank in 2010.
But this is a more competitive Italian unit than in years gone by. They still have the mighty forward pack that has served them well for many years – with iconic tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni looming large – and in French coach Jacques Brunel, they have a master forwards expert.
But they have also found a New Zealand-born flyhalf in Kelly Haimona, who didn’t really feature in his home country but has brought direction to an often underperforming Italian backline that usually lack a bit of bite on attack.
While they were on a ninematch losing streak since November last year, they broke that spell by beating a full-strength Samoa side two weeks ago in Ascoli, and very nearly knocked over a powerful Argentina side last week in Genoa, going down 20-18 after making a few defensive errors to let in a late try and penalty.
And knowing that the Argentines almost beat the Boks home and away during the Rugby Championship, coach Meyer would’ve reminded his players of the ultimate price they paid against Ireland in Dublin – don’t underestimate any team on home soil.
“If you’ve had a look at the team that we’ve picked, it shows that we truly respect them because every game against them has been very tough. Two years ago (in Bologna), they almost beat Australia, and that was a strong Australian side,” Meyer said.
“We’ve been struggling at the breakdown and they’ve got quality loose forwards, especially at the breakdown. So, we know that we have to be physically and mentally prepared, as they are passionate in front of their home crowd and we know that it’s going to be a tough game.”
But there should be more than enough motivation for the Bok team that’s running out tomor- row for them not to be too relaxed. The scrum has become a real weapon in recent months, and new starters Trevor Nyakane and Coenie Oosthuizen will not want to drop the team and undo all the progress made by first-choices Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis. They are certainly well-prepared, judging from the intensity of the Bok training sessions this week.
Italy will be pouring all their resources into the forward battle, and it will require the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee and Duane Vermeulen to stand up once more and quell the onslaught right from the first whistle.
They also cannot afford to get on the wrong side of French ref- eree Jérôme Garcès, whether it’s in the scrums or the breakdowns – Meyer said it would be an armwrestle – and area where the home side will be looking to disrupt the Boks in every possible way. You would think that if the pack can provide some front-foot ball, we might just see speedsters such as Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen finally getting some possession.
They have been largely spectators on this tour as the Boks have kept it tight up the middle, ostensibly due to the wet conditions and the late kick off in Dublin.
But Saturday is set to be a clear and sunny day in Padova, with a maximum of 12°C predicted and no rain forecast.
With a 3pm local time kick off, the pitch should be firm enough and the ball dry, which would allow Bok halfbacks Patrick Lambie and Cobus Reinach to play a more creative style, and make it a bit easier for Johan Goosen in his first Test at fullback.
The Boks came through the “pressure-cooker” of Twickenham on the right side of the scoreboard. Now they need to flex their muscles a bit and show a spirited Italy just what a big gulf there is between the Six Nations bottom-dwellers and the secondbest team in world rugby.
I’M LISTENING: Victor Matfield will continue his record as the most capped Springbok when he runs out for his 117th Test against Italy tomorrow.