RWC 2019 Pool Game 23: Springboks too strong for powerless Italians

The World Cup dreams of Italy – and their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse who retires at the tournament’s end – have been shattered after a 49-3 humbling at the hands of an impressive and powerful South Africa in Shizuoka.

In what was the first-ever meeting between the two nations at the game’s showpiece, the Italians went into the clash knowing that a win would have secured them a place in the Quarter Finals for the first time in their history. But they were never really in the contest.

After conceding an early try to livewire Cheslin Kolbe, they were 17-3 down at the break having been battered into submission by the Springbok’s physicality. And a red card early in the second half only added to their woes, South Africa dominating the rest of the match to run in five more tries, and earn the luxury of an early bath for most of their stars.

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Italy certainly weren’t helped by an early setback, tighthead Simone Ferrari sent back to the garage after pulling a hamstring inside 90 seconds. And things didn’t get any better, the brilliant footwork of Kolbe seeing him take a wide ball from Willie Le Roux and dance inside and out two defenders to find the corner.

A breakdown penalty gave the Azzurri a chance to hit back within a couple of minutes, a long range effort from Tommaso Allan getting them up and running. But that was cancelled out on 12 minutes when a dangerous tackle was penalised, and Handre Pollard made it 10-3.

South Africa tried to turn the screw at set-piece time, their driving maul in particular causing the Italian’s problems. But any advantage they were hoping for at scrum time was temporarily suspended when replacement tighthead prop Marco Riccioni was sent for an HIA, and with the absence of another specialist on the bench, referee Wayne Barnes called for uncontested scrums.

That scenario played firmly into Italian hands when a couple of testing kicks were backed up by an enthusiastic kick-chase, and a Springbok knock-on gave them the put-in inside the 22.

Guaranteed quick, clean ball, they opened up the blindside for centre Luca Morisi to hit a crash ball and carry within five metres, before another knock-on from the defending team gave them another scrum. But at the second time of asking, a rampaging surge from Jake Polledri was held up by the power of Duane Vermeulen, and South Africa cleared.

Power was the name of the game, the sheer size and strength of the Springbok forwards proving to be too big an obstacle for Italy to breach, despite their clear intentions to try and move them around. And it was that potent maul again that should have brought them a second five-pointer, but with the Azzurri defence splintered and numbers out wide, the killer pass from Kolbe fell behind Le Roux with the line begging.

They didn’t waste a second opportunity, keeping it in tight this time they drove all the way to the line for hooker Mbongeni Mbonambi – a surprise selection ahead of Malcolm Marx – to split away at the last moment and crash his way over.

The news that Riccioni had failed his HIA and would not be returning, was as frustrating for the Springbok pack as it was for lovers of the dark arts, as it ensured uncontested scrums for the remainder of the game. Of course, it did also ensure there would be no time lost for resets, but given the point of difference it gives the code, it did make for an unfortunately unedifying spectacle seeing 16 100-plus kilo behemoths merely packing down for a breather.

You couldn’t fault the Italians for effort, and they continued to throw the kitchen sink at their opponent’s through multiple phases to try and forge some kind of breakthrough. But they were met every time by a green wall that was affording them precious little time over the gainline, exhibiting a brand of physicality and discipline that would have had any opposition coaches of their potential future opponents slightly nervous.

It was still 17-3 at the break, and a chance for Italy coach Conor O’Shea to try and come up with something to help his side find a way back into the contest. But what he couldn’t do was change the genetic make up of the team they were facing, and the tone for another second half of brutality was set by Pieter-Steph Du Toit within a minute, the dynamic loose forward absolutely belting Azzurri fullback Matteo Minozzi back in the tackle.

But the dye was well and truly cast by what happened next. With Italy enjoying some rare time in the opposition red zone, the whistle blew for an offside penalty in their favour. Yet despite their attacking advantage, and the game being stopped with the ball still in the hands of Duane Vermeulen, remaining props Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio inexplicably thought it would be a good idea to lift the no.8’s legs, and dump him head first into the turf.

Ref Barnes consulted his TMO and the replays to confirm his suspicions that a red card was the only possible outcome, the only trouble was deciding which of the two culprits to punish. Given the benefit of several views from different angles, it appeared you could make a case for either, or both, to be sent from the field, such was their shared levels of neglect and rank stupidity. But the axe finally fell on Lovotti, leaving the Italians with just one prop remaining from the four named in the original matchday 23.

It goes without saying that a difficult job just became nigh on impossible, and afforded the man advantage and the extra space that comes with it, South Africa started to flex their attacking muscles a bit more expansively.

They thought they had a third inside two minutes, Le Roux tapping back a high ball for Pollard to race through and send Du Toit away off his right shoulder. But the eagle-eyed Barnes had spotted a block from Springbok captain Siya Kolisi on Tommaso Allan that created the hole for Pollard to exploit, and the try was chalked off.

Interestingly, when they returned to the red zone in the 50th minute and Italy conceded a penalty, they opted for 3pts off the boot of Pollard rather than use the lineout drive to try and garner another five-pointer. But when their next foray finally worked the overlap that is always likely against an undermanned team, it was Pollard’s kicking from hand that was on point, with a little nudge to the corner for Kolbe to race home for his double.

A crazy passage of play just before the hour, that saw the game break open and the ball flung from one end to the other with both sides chancing their arm and wasting opportunities, ended with one gamble too far. Jake Polledri – who was brilliant in a losing side – tried to find his skipper Parisse with an offload in the tackle on halfway. But the ball went straight into the grateful arms of Lukhanyo Am instead, and the centre stretched his legs to run in the bonus point.

It was five by the 67th minute, a terrific take at the lineout from giant lock RG Snyman batted down for Le Roux to put an inch-perfect kick over the top for Makazole Mapimpi to stride home. And Snyman got on the scoresheet himself shortly before the end after fine work from the irrepressible Kolbe, the diminutive winger chasing down a Frans Steyn kick and forcing Minozzi to offload back infield without looking, and the 2.07 metre Bulls lock on hand to scoop up and slide over the chalk for his first try in national colours.

There was still time for the Springboks to rub salt into the exposed Azzurri wound, refusing to kick to touch and call it a day when they were awarded a penalty after the bell, and muscling up one last time from the lineout to drive Malcolm Marx over.

With the All Blacks still to come, Italy’s tournament is effectively over, and whether the bonus point wins over both Namibia and Canada represent any signs of progress under O’Shea will be up for debate. But one thing’s for sure, whoever meets South Africa in the last eight better come prepared for war, because on this performance, that’s exactly what it will take to come out the other side.

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SOUTH AFRICA 49 (Cheslin Kolbe 2, Mbongeni Mbonambi, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, RG Snyman, Malcolm Marx tries; Handre Pollard 4 cons, 2 pens) defeated ITALY 3 (Tommaso Allan pen) HT 17-3 at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa

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