The Springboks will almost certainly emerge victorious over Italy in their Test at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday, but the way they achieve that triumph is what most people will be interested in.
Italy have lost all 10 previous Tests they have played against South Africa, with an average score of 53-13, and even though they are an improved outfit since their last meeting – the 55-11 defeat in East London in 2010 – they still have a way to go before they can seriously expect to beat the Springboks on their home turf.
With the world-class Sergio Parisse an inspirational figure at eighthman, they will bring a combative, committed pack to the contest on Saturday, and a stern challenge in the scrums, even with brilliant tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni coming off the bench, but it is difficult to see what other weapons they can bring to the table.
They lack generals at halfback with Edoardo Gori at scrumhalf and the 33-year-old Alberto di Bernardo making his debut at flyhalf, while it is difficult to see the rest of their backline finding a way through what is generally a formidable Springboks defence.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer struggled to keep his clients – the South African rugby public – happy last year as he won seven of 12 Tests. Of course his primary aims are winning and building a team for the next World Cup, rather than playing a brand of rugby that the public likes.
But if your greatest desire when it comes to the Springboks is seeing tries and the ball being thrown around by an entertaining backline, then Saturday’s game should provide a few more moments of pleasure than almost all of the games last year did.
Meyer’s selection of the likes of Willie le Roux at fullback, JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre and Jano Vermaak at scrumhalf suggests he wants to bring some youthful enthusiasm to the attack and the team he announced this week has been met with a thumbs-up by most critics.
The Springboks will, of course, still crash the ball up through the likes of powerful carriers like Willem Alberts, Pierre Spies, Eben Etzebeth, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira, Jean de Villiers and substitutes Coenie Oosthuizen, Flip van der Merwe and Chiliboy Ralepelle, but it is hoped the backline will keep the ball in hand more often than kicking up-and-unders.
Meyer confirmed that Le Roux’s call-up was due to the brand of rugby he displayed for the Cheetahs, and that’s what the Springbok coach wants him to reproduce on Saturday.
“He has shown himself to be a player who has that X-factor we need to add to the mix if we are going to be a complete team,” said Meyer. “If you look at the past World Cups, they’re not usually decided by lots of tries, but an X-factor moment in a key World Cup game can win you the trophy.
“I’ve had a chat with Willie and told him that what I am expecting from him in this Test match is what he has done at SuperRugby level. I don’t want him to change anything from what he does at the Cheetahs. That means he will be given licence to play his natural game.”
Hopefully that vote of confidence will see Le Roux prosper. Meyer is obviously not just looking for X-factor from his fullback; he also needs a good kicking game, security in the air and solid defence.
An Italian team not renowned for dazzling attacking play provides the ideal opportunity for the 23-year-old to show he can make his mark at international level as well.
A resurgent Morné Steyn is there at flyhalf for the percentage game if necessary, while the presence of De Villiers would provide invaluable experience for a new-look backline. The Springbok captain is, however, battling a hamstring niggle and if he is ruled unfit it would mean a debut for another exciting young gun, Bulls centre Jan Serfontein.
Pat Lambie had his backers for the flyhalf position on his home ground, but is on the bench to provide even more attacking impact if need be.
“I rate Patrick Lambie highly and he will get his chance to play. My view is that we have two flyhalves and which one plays will depend on what we need from a particular game. A lot of people have pigeon-holed me as a guy who only likes players who can play a certain way, but if you look at my Bulls teams over the years, there were always guys there that were a bit different and could provide that missing X-factor,” Meyer said.
Saturday could just be the day when we see that come to fruition in the Green and Gold jersey.
South Africa: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Bryan Habana, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bjorn Basson, 10-Morné Steyn, 9-Jano Vermaak, 8-Pierre Spies, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Juandré Kruger, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: 16-Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17-Trevor Nyakane, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Flip van der Merwe, 20-Arno Botha, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein.
Italy: 15-Andrea Masi, 14-Giovanbattista Venditti, 13-Luca Morisi, 12-Alberto Sgarbi, 11-Luke McLean, 10-Alberto di Bernardo, 9-Edoardo Gori, 8-Sergio Parisse, 7-Robert Barbieri, 6-Alessandro Zanni, 5-Marco Bortolami, 4-Antonio Pavanello, 3-Lorenzo Cittadini, 2-Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1-Alberto de Marchi. Replacements: 16-Davide Giazzon, 17-Matias Aguero, 18-Martin Castrogiovanni, 19-Valerio Bernabo, 20-Joshua Furno, 21-Tobias Botes, 22-Luciano Orquera, 23-Tommaso Iannone