Cape Town – It was murky, wet and cold, and vast periods of play were as sluggish and unsubtle as watching an ocean liner turn in a harbour.
But with conditions and the claustrophobically narrow field clearly levellers of some magnitude, the Springboks warrant a fair dollop of praise for putting away committed but toothless Italy comfortably enough in Padova on Saturday.
The 35-6 – and five tries to nil – outcome thoroughly avenged last year’s first-time loss to these foes, and that alone would have given the tourists considerable satisfaction back in the warmth of the dressing room.
In truth, we learnt nothing especially new: South Africa have a pack of forwards, especially with Duane Vermeulen’s earthy qualities returned, able to compete with any rival eight … but a backline still riddled with rank mediocrity in too many jerseys.
Nevertheless, Handre Pollard came agreeably back to the fore on a day tailor-made for his particular brand of flyhalf play, and tops the Sport24 performance card alongside sprightly midfielder Francois Venter and fetcher Francois Louw.
Here’s how I rated the Boks out of 10 in Padova:
Andries Coetzee: 5.5
At the risk of almost weekly repetition, the Lions fullback was again little more than “functional”. Pulled his weight defensively, and sometimes showed smart positional sense when danger briefly lurked, but also posed little to no threat on attack and some of his kicks, either for touch or in-field, were extremely ropey.
Dillyn Leyds: 5.5
Difficult to be definitive about his showing, considering that so little came his way. No glaring gaffes, though.
Jesse Kriel: 6
Better than against France or Ireland; that’s something. Made one incisive break from deep, and had stronger focus this week in the tackle department as well.
Francois Venter: 7.5
As Naas Botha noted in the SuperSport studio, he straightened the line -- and not many are doing that properly right now. Made a key early intercept at close quarters when Boks were under cosh, and was industrious and willing throughout. Sound communicator.
Courtnall Skosan: 4.5
Alas, once again no sign of translating his Super Rugby sprightliness into any semblance of Test potency. Too much of an anonymous figure … and when asked to deal with a ball under minimal pressure, he knocked on.
Handre Pollard: 7.5
It helped that he completely turned around his wonky place-kicking from Paris, registering 4/4 off the tee in the greasy conditions here. But he also provided a degree of generalship so often lacking at No 10 for the Boks this year. Set up first SA try with stirring half-break near line, and also third with beautifully-weighted cross-kick.
Ross Cronje: 5.5
Another whose hold on his jersey stays fairly tenuous. One useful mini-snipe through the middle, occasional astute options but conceded an offside penalty, lacked real gusto … and guilty of one hoist that went very pear-shaped.
Duane Vermeulen: 7
Was given a good battle, as expected, by the one world-class Italian, Sergio Parisse, but offered plenty of his own value. His brute strength and acumen at close quarters is invaluable, especially on slower surfaces like this one was.
Pieter-Steph du Toit: 6.5
Although he seemed to lose a bit of steam late on, generally we saw more good evidence that his “conversion” to back-rower is going swimmingly. Carried repeatedly and urgently, making important yards in first half, and some alert moments of cover defence.
Francois Louw: 7.5
Engine worked so willingly and uncomplainingly here. Made several steals, tackled firmly throughout and aided some rumbling mauls. Took his try well. One breakdown penalty against him.
Lood de Jager: 6.
Tidy shift, even if little genuinely house-on-fire stuff. Penalised for not rolling, and hands let him down once or twice, but played his part in broader pack mastery.
Eben Etzebeth: 6.5
Remember that he was injured last week against France, after a murderous shift then. Slightly off his famed A-game in this one, but also far from idle. Forcefully drove back rival skipper Parisse once. Gave away two penalties.
Wilco Louw: 7
Development continues in leaps and bounds. Anchorman of a menacing Bok scrum, and busy beyond the set-piece.
Bongi Mbonambi: 7
It’s taken a patient wait for his maiden start, but it was worth it. Certainly confirmed he is currently good value as second in line to Malcolm Marx, the juggernaut who missed this clash. Finished off mauling move for popular try. Some pinpoint lineout throws, but two also went wayward.
Tendai Mtawarira: 6.5
Was scrumming firmly, as he has done for much of 2017, before he limped off in 28th minute.
Steven Kitshoff: 7
Seems to be a near-permanent winner of this mantle … which does raise question of whether he should instead be starting more? Excellent all-round input, and barrelling try. Warrick Gelant also showed fleet-footed promise in a 19-minute Test debut.
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