RWC 2019 Match Preview

Pool B

Friday 4thOctober

South Africa vs Italy

Venue: Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa
Kick-off: 18h45 local; 09h45 GMT; 11h45 SA time.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

Do, or Die!

For both teams that is the call for this game. 

The loser will not be staying in Japan for the knockout rounds of the playoffs.

Essentially, this is their first “knockout round” – For the loser, it is an early trip home.

This is the first time that Italy and South Africa face off at a Rugby World Cup.

Before this game the Springboks have faced Italy 14 times, with 13 wins for the South Africans, and one for the Italians.

The Italian victory in 2016 was akin to a seismic event for South African supporters, and three years later the shockwaves are still reverberating through the country, sending ripples of disquiet to disturb the refelective moments of every supporter.

The 2019 Springboks are very well aware of that loss in 2016, it has been niggling in their minds too, so much so that their coaches have spoken of their nervousness. Defence coach Nienaber has even spoken of sleepless nights. 

That can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing if it is a motivating factor, it is a bad thing if there is fear and trepidation. Nervousness is good, fear is not.

Whilst Italian captain Sergio Parisse has said that there is no pressure on the Italians and that all the pre-game mental pressure is on the South Africans he did give the lie to that statement by saying that Italy have been thinking about this game for the last four years!

Coach Conor O’Shea added to that hint of nervousness when he spoke of his expectation of a forward onslaught by the Springboks and said: “If you don’t front up physically against South Africa, you’ve already lost the match,”

O’Shea also said. “You must take them on in the forwards. We must treat it like the last match we’ll ever play.”

“We did think about going with an 8-0 split (on the bench) but that would have been a bit over the top.”He has, however, gone with a 6-2 split in order to bolster his forward contingent for this game.

Rassie Erasmus has sent a message with his own selections – he too has gone for a 6-2 split on the bench, indicating that he expects his forwards to front up for the full 80 minutes of this Test. He wants a forward oriented game!

For the fans and supporters, this is probably the biggest game of the week.

Selections:

South Africa:

Rassie Erasmus has returned to his “1stTeam” selection, with a slight variation to the theme. Instead of Franco Mostert starting at lock, Lood de Jager gets his opportunity in the run-on side, with Mostert joining RG Snyman on the bench. Similarly, Beast Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi rotate into the starting jerseys, with Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx waiting for their chance later in the game.

The real feature of this selection is the forward power on the bench. Malcolm Marx,  Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, and Francois Louw are the six forward reserves, and every single one of them is a potential starting player. They are backed by just two backline reserves, Frans Steyn and Herschel Jantjies.

South Africa: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Franco Mostert, 21 Francois Louw, 22 Herschel Jantjies, 23 Frans Steyn.

Italy:

Conor O’Shea has also made some changes to his run-on side which beat Canada 48-7 in Fukuoka last week.

All those changes are made in the back-line with Michele Campagnaro, who started at outside centre against the Canucks, shifting to the left wing with Luca Morisi taking over in the number 13 jersey.

Campagnaro replaces Giulio Bisegni out wide and is joined in the back three by fellow wing Tommaso Benvenuti and full-back Matteo Minozzi.

Captain Sergio Parisse will break Italy’s appearance record for Rugby World Cup matches when he leads his team against South Africa. He will his 15th match at the global event and in doing so, he will also win his 142nd cap, surpassing Brian O’Driscoll of Ireland’s total of 141, to become the record appearance maker of the northern hemisphere. 

Only New Zealand’s Richie McCaw, with 148 Test caps, has more.

Parisse will be joined in the Azzurri’s back-row by Braam Steyn and Jake Polledri, who are the starting flankers.

O’Shea has gone for a 6-2 split on the bench as he looks to bolster his forwards for the expected forward onslaught by the Springboks. Just scrumhalf Callum Braley and flyhalf Carlo Canna will provide relief for the backs.

Italy: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Jayden Hayward, 11 Michele Campagnaro, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Jake Polledri, 6 Braam Steyn, 5 Dean Budd, 4 David Sisi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Federico Zani, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Marco Riccioni, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Sebastian Negri, 22 Callum Braley, 23 Carlo Canna

Thoughts:

The Weather:

Much has been made of the expected rain during the game, media reports suggesting that the forecast is not good, with thunderstorms expected over the stadium.

Once again, I have not been able to confirm the forecasts suggested by various media sites.

The two weather services I consult, YR.NO and Accuweather both suggest clear skies and no chance of rain! Both suggest a temperature of around 22℃with high humidity of between 68% and 72%. Dewpoint is forecast at 17℃.

Yr.no
Accuweather

There is certainly rain forecast for earlier in that day, overnight and continuing until late morning, which suggests a wet, slightly heavy, field which will certainly contribute to handling problems, but the forecasters are not telling us that the game will be played in a downpour.

The Game:

If the ball is slippery and the field a little heavy, we can expect the Springbok focus to be very much on a continuation of the game plan they have used with so much success since Rassie Erasmus took over the coaching duties. A plan based on forward domination, playing direct rugby with the forwards looking to smash through the first line of defence, suck in defenders, and then only moving the ball out wide for the finishers on the wings, a game plan backed by a box-kicking strategy from the scrumhalves, and a tactical kicking focus by the flyhalf, with chasers looking to pressurize the kick-receivers as they take the ball in difficult handling conditions.

This game plan has sometimes been criticized by a number of media hacks who have often called for a different style after the Springboks have lost a game – they did so again, somewhat vociferously, after the Springbok loss to New Zealand in the opening fixture of RWC 2019. 

One wonders what game they had been watching? The Springboks dominated the first 20 minutes of that game with precisely the game plan the scribes were complaining about, the Springboks then had a wobbly 20 minutes when they abandoned Plan A and tried to play All Black style rugby, conceding two tries as they lost defensive shape and focus in the process. After halftime the Springboks went back to playing their Plan A game plan, and very nearly saved the game – a poor pass and a missed penalty was all that stood between them and yet another draw with the mighty All Blacks. A return to their basic game plan gave the All Blacks enormous headaches!

If it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it!

The Italians have a fairly good scrum, and a couple of outstanding backs, especially their fullback, Matteo Minozzi. Their outside centre Luca Morisi can be a handful if given space to move.

Their halfback pairing of scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi and flyhalf Tommaso Allan are a solid unit too, but not quite of stellar proportions.

The real measure is whether that pack of Italian forwards has the power and fortitude to withstand the Springboks in both set-pieces and in the broken play collisions? It is in the forwards that the Springboks are likely to dominate. They are likely to be far too strong for the Italians in all aspects of forward play, the scrums, lineouts, rucks, mauls, and are likely to dominate the breakdown.

At the back the Springbok backs have scored their fair share of tries, yet they have not yet looked a wholly cohesive unit. The problem has been in the midfield where Damián de Allende has shown good form, and has run the ball up and over the gain line with relative regularity, but has often found himself unable to offload or pass to his outside as his centre partner, Lukhanyo Am, has not run the correct support lines and has drifted out of reach. De Allende has been forced to play back to the supporting forwards, or to take the ball into contact and recycle it.

This may well be a focus point in the game against Italy, with the midfield looking to gel as a combination at last.

Out wide the Italians have some pace and unpredictability in Matteo Minozzi, but they do not have anyone with the mongrel and excitement of a Cheslin Kolbe or the lethal finishing of Makazole Mapimpi. The Springbok finishers have been scoring tries with relative ease.

However, before they can talk about the finishing of their wings, the Springboks will need to find some of the accuracy that was missing against the All Blacks. Handré Pollard was slightly off his game in that encounter, his tactical kicks were not quite on the money and his touch-finders were also a little iffy. Such is the quality of the player that he will have thought through his game and will be looking to find the accuracy he needs going forward.

Faf de Klerk has been roundly criticized for his box-kicking, yet he is playing to the game plan dictated by his coach. If he can find the pinpoint accuracy that eluded him in that first outing, the critics will be silenced. He does need to look at speeding up the game off the breakdowns in order to stretch the Italian defenders.

If the halfbacks find the accuracy that was just a little off the edge against the All Blacks, the Springboks are likely to step their game up another dimension.

(Remember, that despite being slightly off their best, the Springboks still gave the All Blacks a serious run for their money in that game……)

If we look at the breakdowns and the loose-forward units, the South Africa trio seems to have the edge over the Italians. Sergio Parisse is a true competitor, but at 38-years old, his pace has started to slow, and his energy levels start to drop later in games. He faces Duane Vermeulen who has started to play the kind of rugby that makes him one of the best in the world. And then we have probably the best rugby forward in world rugby today, Pieter-Steph du Toit, looking to create havoc with the ball in hand while also tackling everything that moves, and his captain Siya Kolisi, who has been showing signs of recapturing his form as match fitness has improved with each outing. Whether Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn can match the Springbok flankers is a question to be answered. They may find themselves forced to play it close and hard to help their tight forwards try and contain the Springbok big men.

The next aspect we need to measure is the two teams defences. The Springbok defence has been miserly throughout 2019, with variations of the rush defence coupled to some superior scrambling on the cover. They have turned defence into an offensive weapon. Italy, on the other hand, have frequently given away points, including allowing Namibia tries and 22 points in their fixture, while Canada also managed a try against Italy. Namibia could not breach the Springbok defence at all.

Once again, the Springboks just seem to have the edge in this department.

Then we need to look to the benches.

While both benches have six forwards and two backs, there simply does not seem to be any comparison between the two teams. 

As mentioned earlier, anyone on the Springbok bench could be starting this or any other test, such is the depth of the South African resources. 

The Italian bench does not reflect the same kind of quality.

Their problem, simply, is with the depth of their resources later in the game. 

A final thought:

There has been some suggestion that Italy have a perceived advantage as their early games in the Rugby World Cup have been relatively easy fixtures, allowing them a longer term focus on their preparations to face the Springboks. This suggests that they will be better prepared than the Springboks.

I could counter this suggestion by reminding that the Springboks are well used to preparing for high intensity games, week after week. They have just won the Rugby Championships, which had them playing Argentina, Australia, and the All Blacks in a short couple of weeks, and then they played Argentina again!

I am not sure that two “soft” games is ideal as preparation for a massive game against South Africa.

This game will revolve around two aspects of play. 

Will the Italians be able to lift themselves for one mighty effort to knock over the Springboks? 

Will the Springboks be looking towards hitting their straps and heading towards the next level, stepping up from their game against the All Blacks and finding a higher level, just short of peaking at their very best? (They will surely want to peak in the playoff rounds?)

Whatever happens, both sides will know that this is the Big One! Lose here, and they will be going home early.

Prediction:

The 2019 Springboks have something special about them, this is a happy team, and they are playing good, focussed, winning rugby, albeit with a wobble against the mighty All Blacks. I cannot see Italy matching the Springboks on any level.

South Africa, by around 30 points.