It was lucky 13 for Italy in Florence, because after losing their first twelve games against South Africa they won the next one.
The crowd was ecstatic as were the players and new head coach Conor O’Shea. By contrast the Springboks were in despair after losing their sixth game of the last seven.
The Boks looked good early though. They turned down an easy three points and went for a lineout drive and although that went amiss they did better with the second attempt: the ball was moved wide and Habana scored when the defence couldn’t number up,
But the Azzurri struck back when South Africa obstructed from the restart and they scored from their own lineout drive through lock Van Schalkwyk dotting down in the corner. Flyhalf Canna converted truly from touch and Italy led 7-5 at 12 minutes.
The turf on the soccer ground was not firm for the scrummaging of large men, and was not perfect for stepping either.
Willie le Roux – one of few Springboks to play well
In what was to be their best move of the day the Springboks turned over the ball on their 22 and after good work by Lambie, le Roux and Combrinck, Damian de Allende got the ball and he raced 45 metres along touch to score. After the conversion South Africa had the lead again, 12-7 at 18 minutes.
There was some willing play for the rest ot the half with one highlight being a 48 metre penalty goal from Italy fullback Edoardo Padovani. Another was a typical mazy run from his Springbok counterpart Willie le Roux, but the Boks knocked the ball on.
Then with about five minutes left Combrinck took off from the Bok 22 and Lambie was nearly over. Wide-open Habana was ignored like a shag on a rock and when South Africa got another chance they dropped the ball.
It was a ferocious passage of defensive play from the Azzurri.
Half-time score: South Africa 12 – Italy 10.
Big names – Giovanbattista Vendetti gets grabbed by Pieter-Steph du Toit
Right after the break Italy lock Marco Fuser got binned for charging the Bok lineout lifters. It was not the first time the Azzurri had done it and he paid the price.
While he was missing the Boks attacked repeatedly, yet three points was their only reward. But when Italy had 15 men again they were suddenly in the enemy 22; Venditti found the Boks outnumbered and he scored in the first sally. Canna’s conversion was sound and Italy led again: 17-15.
The sides swapped penalty goals and with 16 minutes remaining Italy was still two points ahead. Both sides were tired and play become ragged—one mistake or brilliancy could turn the match.
But neither occurred and the Azzurri finished the game in the Springboks 22.
Final score: Italy 20 – South Africa 18
Giorgio Bronzini – one of the best for the Azzurri
The wrap up
The Springboks were a pale shadow of the team that went close to making the Rugby World Cup final last year and more like the team that lost to Japan. Their skills and combinations were poor and the Italians bossed them in the rucks, especially defending near their own goal line.
They could not read the play and missed opportunities; they looked dangerous only when their quick ball runners were in the open.
The Azzurri did what they could with what they had, and they produced one of the best defensive efforts that I have seen from them.
The game changer
They key period was during the the ten minutes when Fuser was in the bin. The Springboks pounded the Azzurri repeatedly in their 22 and near their goal line, but could not score a try. And a few minutes later when Fuser was back, Venditti scored at the other end.
Man of the match Simone Favaro (obscured) tackles Damian de Allende
Man of the match
There were few decent Springboks; it was as though a cloak of mediocrity descended on them. Willie Roux was dangerous in space and skipper Adriaan Strauss showed his class—but this is grasping at straws.
Many of the Italians played above their normal ability though skipper Parisse was at his normal excellent standard and it was as though he had a twin brother in the team because he was in everything. Big bopper winger Vendetti used his size to effect with and without the ball and scrummie Bronzini made me embarrassed to remember that I didn’t rate him. We are going to see more of his excellent passing and game management.
But the Green and Gold Man of the Match award goes to openside flanker Simone Favaro who was strong over the ball and was putting out fires all over the place for the full 80 minutes.
Tries: D. van Schalkwyk (11′), G. Venditti (55′).
Conversions: C. Canna (12′, 57′).
Penalties: E. Padovani (29′), C. Canna (64′).
Tries: B. Habana (8′), D. de Allende. (16′).
Conversion: P. Lambie (18′).
Penalties: P. Lambie (45′), E. Jantjies (60′).
Get more match information from NZ Herald.