Although weary of the Az­zurri, Meyer’s men must flex their mus­cle against the Six Na­tions’ wooden-spoons

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - ASHFAK MO­HAMED

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.

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