Boks’ reputation on the line
The Springboks have lost just three Test matches this year while on their way to capturing a series against the British and Irish Lions, winning the TriNations trophy and going to number one in the world.
They are a formidable force in world rugby, and have probably just enjoyed their best year ever, but today against Italy the Boks face a different challenge altogether.
They are not playing a match to win a series or competition – they are playing to restore their status as World Champions.
While the Test team have only lost once on tour – against France in Toulouse last Friday – the reality is the Springboks go into today’s match on the back of three defeats after he dirt-trackers also lost matches against Leicester and Saracens.
Bok skipper John Smit is clear on the issue of the Boks losing three on the trot, and not just one Test.
“We came here (to Europe) as one team and it’s not happened too often that we’ve lost three in a row,” he said. “It’s important that we generate an effort worthy enough of winning this Test, something we have not done up to now.
“Italy have improved massively in the last while so this is going to be a big challenge.
“But the important thing is that we have to go back to the standards we have set for ourselves and achieved over the last year,” Smit said.
“We’re not concerning ourselves with any other team. This is about us as a group and the standards we need to achieve to win,” he said.
The Boks have certainly not been at their best on tour and they really did battle in Toulouse last Friday so Smit’s got it 100% right when he says there needs to be a big improvement today.
This Bok side is capable of far better a performance than was the case against France.
But complicating matters today for them to achieve this is the fact so many changes have been made to the side.
The new-look front row of Smit, Adriaan Strauss and Wian du Preez doesn’t inspire all that much confidence, especially when one considers the for midable Italy front row they’ll be up against.
And behind them, Andries Bekker starts ahead of Victor Matfield, while the loose-trio appears to be missing something.
Heinrich Brussow will continue to cause problems at the breakdowns, Danie Rossouw will add some much-needed grunt, but it is Ryan Kankowski who needs to step up big time this afternoon.
Smit says the opportunities afforded to the likes of Strauss, Du Preez, Bekker and the two uncapped men on the bench – Jean Deysel and Francois Hougaard – will benefit his team more than it will weaken them.
“It’s been a while since we had so many new faces in the 22,” said Smit. “A guy like Andries Bekker will be very hungry to show what he can do, as will the others. I’m excited to see what the new guys offer the team.”
While the Boks shouldn’t have too many problems dealing with their hosts at the lineouts, breakdowns and in the backs, it is at scrum-time where things could come undone. Italy have a formidable set-piece, with the powerful Martin Catrogiovanni leading the way.
According to Smit, the Boks know exactly what to expect. “There’s been a lot of talk about the scrums, but the reality is we start afresh tomorrow (today),” Smit added.
“We know they’re going to use the scrum as their biggest form of ammunition, but I can tell you, we won’t be caught by surprise like New Zealand were. We’re just going to have to impose ourselves there.”
Italy have never beaten the Boks and that shouldn’t change this afternoon.
But what the Boks will want from this match is a good allround performance, with not too many questions asked afterwards.
They face Ireland next week and will want to go into that game with confidence – and not having to rescue the tour.
“We need to find enough in ourselves for two more games to make this a wonderful season,” concluded Smit.
BOK BRAWN: Springbok forwards coach Gary Gold, right, puts Bok players Ryan Kankowski, skipper John Smit and Bakkies Botha through their paces ahead of the Test against Italy in Udine today.