SHIZUOKA – Nervous South Africa head into their must-win Rugby World Cup Pool B clash with Italy on Friday as favourites, but come up against opponents with little to lose and a hunger for an upset at the Shizuoka Stadium.
The match is essentially a knock-out fixture for the Springboks, who lost 23-13 to New Zealand in their opener before rallying to defeat minnows Namibia 57-3.
There is some precedent for an upset, with South Africa losing 20-18 to Italy on their 2016 tour, although the Boks have markedly improved in the last 18 months under coach Rassie Erasmus.
"We’ve been preparing for 20 or 21 Test matches and it is do-or-die now," Erasmus told reporters.
"The players feel it. I can’t sit here and tell you that we don’t have a few butterflies, because we’ve lost to Italy in the last three years.
"They (Italy) will be really up for this game because they won’t believe they can beat the All Blacks, but they will believe they can beat the Springboks."
South Africa have made three changes to their pack from the team that lost their opener, with hooker Bongi Mbonambi and experienced prop Tendai Mtawarira in the front row, and Lood de Jager chosen at lock.
Erasmus is convinced the battle will be won or lost in the forwards and, like Italy, has chosen a 6-2 split among his replacements in favour of the heavy artillery.
"The challenge that we will get is definitely up front. We do think they have a great backline as well, but we think the physical challenge up front will be scrum-time, mauling.
"Having a bench like this, after guys like Bongi, Beast (Mtawarira) and Frans (Malherbe) mix it for the first 40 or 50 minutes, we think it might get us some benefits in the second half."
Italy coach Conor O’Shea is under no illusions that his side are underdogs but adds that all the pressure is on the Boks.
"The pressure is firmly on South Africa, they are expected to win the World Cup," he said.
"If you don’t front up physically against them, you’ve already lost the match. You must take them on in the forwards. We must treat it like the last match we’ll ever play."
O’Shea says they can draw inspiration from their 2016 success but adds much water has passed under the bridge for both sides since then.
He believes their performance a year later, when they lost 35-6, was actually superior.
"You need that benchmark to know it is achievable, but they are two different teams," he said.
"Three years is a lifetime. Our performance in Padova a year later, when we lost to them, was better. We were miles better in that game than when we won.