Italy are hardly a world rugby super-power but the fact they managed to beat the Springboks in Florence just three years ago is enough for coach Rassie Erasmus to be wary of the threat posed by the Azzurri ahead of their Rugby World Cup meeting this Friday.
It will be the teams’ first meeting in a World Cup tournament and while the Boks will start as the favourites, Erasmus is thinking of nothing other than winning the game and moving on.
And he’s got a point. Long gone are the days when the Boks scored a 101-0 victory against Italy in Durban in 1999 and fresh in the memory is the first-ever and still only defeat suffered to the Azzurri, in Florence in November 2016, when the Boks went down 20-18.
A year later the Boks set the record straight with a 35-6 win in Padua, but with a World Cup quarter-finals place on the line now anything is possible.
“I’ve got butterflies as I sit here,” said Erasmus ahead of the match in Ecopa. “Italy will be up for this game. They won’t believe they can beat the All Blacks (on October 12), but they’ll believe they can beat us.
“Their focus in the last two years has probably been on beating us in this match, to have a chance of getting out of the pool.”
So far in the tournament, the Boks have lost to New Zealand and beaten Namibia, while Italy have won against both Canada and Namibia.
Erasmus called Friday’s match a do-or-die affair. “We’ve played seven games this year and lost one, so we’re comfortable with what we’re doing … it’s been good enough up to now, but it’s not good enough to win the World Cup.
“We’ve been playing to our strengths but with the difficult playing conditions here this is not the time to rectify (anything). This is do-or-die, the real-deal, the crunch-game."
Reflecting on his forwards-heavy team, including Beast Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager, Erasmus said: “Bongi and Beast have been great when they’ve got their opportunities, especially at scrum-time, and our challenge this week will be up-front. And Lood will be essential in the line-outs.”
Meanwhile, Jesse Kriel has been ruled out of the World Cup. He has been replaced by Damian Willemse.