OMAEZAKI, SHIZUOKA PREF. – Rassie Erasmus expects the Springboks’ battle with Italy at the Rugby World Cup to be fought and won on just one front — up front.
The South Africa coach prepared accordingly by loading his eight-man bench with six forwards for the potentially decisive Pool B game against the Italians at Shizuoka on Friday.
“People think it’s a gamble . . . but we want to have plenty of ammunition,” Erasmus said Tuesday when announcing his team.
The Springboks chose a remote hilltop hotel as their base to prepare this week, adding to the imagery of a team hunkering down and gathering itself for a pivotal fight. Erasmus was keen on using battle language when announcing his lineup.
The South Africans would almost certainly be out of the Rugby World Cup if they lose to Italy.
Failing to make the quarterfinals for the first time at a World Cup is a prospect that is as unsettling for the Springboks as the presence of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, which can be glimpsed from the main balcony at the hotel in the out-of-the-way small city of Omaezaki.
The main focus should be the sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean but the power plant drags eyes away. The plant suspended operations in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster because the Omaezaki region is also expected to be hit by a major earthquake in the not-too-distant future.
Likewise, the Springboks should be inspired by the bigger picture in terms of their rivalry with Italy. They’ve won 13 out of the teams’ 14 showdowns but the one defeat, in Florence in 2016, still unnerves South Africa, whose performance was especially poor that day.
Although Erasmus wasn’t coach back then, he has often said in the buildup to the World Cup that the Italy game has the potential to halt South Africa in its tracks.
Italy has had two relatively straightforward victories in Japan, against Namibia and Canada, while South Africa limped away from Tokyo after losing to New Zealand. Spirits were lifted with a big win over Namibia, when the squad stayed in Nagoya.
Now base camp is in the countryside. Just close enough to Shizuoka for convenience but far enough away for focus.
“Italy have had their eyes on this match for a couple of years and will have planned and schemed how to bring us down once again,” Erasmus said. “This is a defining match for them and while we were focusing on the New Zealand game, they will have had their eyes on this one as the key to the quarterfinals for them.
“We are at the stage already where there are no second chances. That’s a message we have been emphasizing to the players this week.”
Erasmus’ team selection centered around the forwards who will take on an Italian pack led by the inspirational Sergio Parisse.
Erasmus rewarded prop Tendai Mtawarira and hooker Bongi Mbonambi with starts, bringing them into the first-choice lineup after they were on the bench in the loss to the All Blacks. Lock Lood de Jaeger, who stood out against Namibia, also has a place in the XV. The rest of the run-on team is as it was against New Zealand, with flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit and No. 8 Duane Vermeulen back after getting to rest completely for the Namibia game.
Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, flyhalf Handre Pollard and fullback Willie le Roux are all back, too.
And then there’s that extra ammunition: Forwards Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert and Francois Louw are all ready to add weight from the bench.
South Africa later confirmed that Jesse Kriel has been ruled out of the tournament because of a hamstring injury sustained against the All Blacks. Kriel has been replaced by 21-year-old utility back Damian Willemse, who has five caps and is currently playing his club rugby in England with Saracens.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jaeger, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5