The Springboks lifted their challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup up a notch in Shizuoka, beating Italy 49-3 to move to the top of Pool B on Friday, with Cheslin Kolbe scoring two of the Boks’ seven tries.
The convincing win, in which they also gained a bonus point for four tries, was the first defeat to Italy, who was top of the pool standings going into the match.
It was a bruising affair in many ways, but unfortunately affected negatively by injuries to both Italian tighthead props and a red card to their loosehead prop, Andrea Lovotti, in the second half.
The Azzurri suffered an early injury with Simone Ferrari leaving the field in the second minute of play already due to a hamstring strain, something that would significantly impact on the character of the match.
Replacement tight head Marco Riccioni also departed the scene due to injury in the 19th minute of the match and uncontested scrums were called.
The match started with a strong Springbok scrum creating the first attacking opportunity. The Boks kicked for territory and from the resulting lineout, Kolbe scored in the corner.
Before he stepped inside his defender following a drifted pass from Willie le Roux, the pack drove strongly through the middle and when the ball was spread out wide, the first try was on.
Pollard converted from the touchline to set the match alight from a Springbok perspective.
The Italians got their first opportunity in the seventh minute when Bong Mbonambi was caught not rolling away after a tackle and Tommaso Allen kicked his first penalty goal of the match. It was also the Azzurri’s only points.
Italy fluffed the restart though and were put under pressure but the Boks, who kept plugging away. Pieter-Steph du Toit ran strongly but was brought down by a high tackle. Pollard punished that indiscretion with his first penalty goal of the match.
The Bok pack had the upper hand in the early stages and that resulted in their opponents pushing the patience of referee Wayne Barnes around the offside line and coming in from the side at rucks and mauls.
Italy did however start to establish some territorial advantage and kept their attacks close to their forwards. A crucial turn-over close to the Bok line by Duane Vermeulen swung the momentum towards his team again.
The Boks worked their way upfield and drove with purpose from an attacking lineout and although Mbonambi was taken out, he got his reward from the very next attacking lineout forced by the Boks.
Pollard again connected sweetly to push the lead out to 14 points after 28 minutes despite only enjoying 25% possession in the preceding 10 minutes.
Credit to Italy, who kept attacking, with Jake Polledri (flanker) strong on the drive, but it was rather South Africa who spurred a certain try-scoring opportunity with a final pass going astray with the Italian defence outnumbered.
South Africa were up 17-3 at the break, with their two tries rather reflecting the striking ability of the side than territorial dominance.
They played without any territorial ascendency in the first 30 minutes, but both tries came when they worked their way up the field and in striking distance. Italy on the other hand, could only show a penalty as reward for their spells of superior territorial and possession.
The second half started in dramatic fashion, with Italy attacking strongly and when desperate scrambling by the Boks halted play meters from their line, Duane Vermeulen was dumped on his head by Lovotti, who was shown red card after consultation by the match officials.
That moment of madness cost his team dearly as the Boks would punish their opponents with another 32 points.
The Boks thought they scored when Pollard sliced through and send Du Toit over, but Barnes spotted obstruction and the try ruled out.
Italy’s discipline was not great, and they paid the price. Pollard converted Italy’s ninth penalty into three more points for his team and extended the lead to 17 points after 50 minutes of play.
The next try, Kolbe’s second, was the best play of the first hour by the Boks.
From the restart, Faf de Klerk kicked high, Kolbe won the ball in the air and with Italy on the back foot, a number of gaps appeared. Pollard’s delicate foot pass found Kolbe in the open and he finished in great fashion to push the lead out to 21 points.
Lukhanyo Am was next to score, the fourth try that delivered the bonus point for the Springboks.
The Boks attacked with Le Roux’s chip and chase delightfully regathered by the fullback, but Italy intercepted and made their way towards the Bok line, only for Am to intercept and race away.
Pollard slotted his third conversion to extend the lead to a formidable 29 points.
The try-scoring was far from over though, as the Italians found it more difficult by the minute to close all the gaps created by the Boks and Makazole Mapimpi scored 12 minutes from time when he ran onto a chip from Willie le Roux.
RG Snyman also got onto the score board for his first Test try, as did Malcolm Marx following a strong lineout drive after the final hooter has gone.
Marx drove over from a rolling maul, the perfect end for the Springboks to celebrate a clinical win ad a rewarding the effort from all the bench players, who lifted the tempo when needed.
Springboks – Tries: Cheslin Kolbe (2), Bongi Mbonambi, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, RG Snyman, Malcolm Marx; Conversions: Handre Pollard (4); Penalty goals: Pollard (2).
Italy – Penalty goal: Tommaso Allan.