Cape Town - Perhaps it was fitting that on the day legendary second row hard man Bakkies Botha poignantly announced his Test retirement, Eben Etzebeth - 12 years his junior at 23 - produced one of his most forceful showings of the year in the Springbok No 4 jersey against Italy in Padova.
As it happened: Italy v Springboks
Botha acknowledged in his sudden, official Bok farewell statement on Saturday that some “superb young locks” had entered the South African Test picture in the last couple of seasons and no doubt he included Etzebeth, who he has mentored a lot, in that assessment.
The Boks were a long way off their best in downing the tenacious, spoiling Italians 22-6 and by three tries to nil, but the hosts got away with some officiating murder at times; it didn’t aid any quest for continuity by the heavily fancied side.
SA laboured to retain possession at times, and were blunt on attack until some key second-half substitutions, although their front five - especially resilient against the decent Italian scrum - were mostly exempt from much of the criticism that will inevitably come the Bok way from a high-expectation public back home ...
Here’s how I rated the Boks out of 10:
Johan Goosen: 6.5
Pretty good first start at fullback for SA, I thought. Nice show-and-go in first half counter-attacking burst, and another break from deep early in second. One alert, thumping tackle when Italians threatened.
JP Pietersen: 6
Mixed bag. Good physical presence on defence, including important tackle on a rampaging Sergio Parisse. One kick out on full, and just couldn’t hold awkward low pass that would have ensured him an easy romp over for try.
Jan Serfontein: 5.5
Untiring in tackling terms, but again no real evidence of slipperiness on attack. Questions will remain about suitability of midfield partnership with Bok captain.
Jean de Villiers: 6
Industrious, and mostly made astute tactical decisions. Missed a couple of tackles, but was rightly agitated when deemed to have knocked on when ball blatantly slapped out of his hands once.
Bryan Habana: 5.5
Looks a bit stale at end of another long, arduous rugby year. No bad thing, maybe, that this veteran is unavailable for final tour game against Wales.
Pat Lambie: 6.5
Made some mistakes, but showed encouraging composure - especially early on, when opposition applied regular pressure - and willingness to go to advantage line.
Cobus Reinach: 6.5
Local rendition of SA national anthem was eccentric, as was Italian choice of Reinach for man of match. Satisfying enough showing nevertheless. Pleasing urgency, though did dally a couple of times when clearance sorely needed. Electric pace at short range for his try.
Duane Vermeulen: 7
Gripping battle with seasoned, similarly rugged opposite number Parisse. Seldom far from heat of battle, and one vital display of leg drive off retreating Bok scrum in own quarter.
Oupa Mohoje: 5.5
Didn’t disgrace, but remains very much a work in progress at this level. Sometimes too upright at breakdown, and lost one ball in contact.
Marcell Coetzee: 6
Good rather than customary very good. Always willing to carry, and track back stealthily on defence, but occasionally isolated himself too much from support, and this wasn’t his best day as a poacher.
Victor Matfield: 7
Superior day at office to Twickenham, where his yellow card saw Boks leak 14 points while understaffed. Looked determined to make amends here, and did. Usual lineout efficiency despite some niggling Italian attempts to disrupt him, and made lots of tackles.
Eben Etzebeth: 7.5
Really got stuck in at coalface for 70 minutes. Debatably penalised at one maul, and did knock on once, but otherwise the second half, especially, saw him embark on rampage after rampage with ball in hand - much more like the dynamic player of 2012 and 2013.
Coenie Oosthuizen: 6.5
Some traumatic scrums, but a few rock-solid ones by the tighthead as well, so maybe he really is learning the trade at last. Demonstrated via his try why he is such an attractive ball-carrying option near enemy line.
Adriaan Strauss: 6
Been better, been worse. Usual hard graft in open play but some lineout throws missed intended target. Mind you, when Bismarck du Plessis took his place, the sub certainly didn’t lift standards this time and was a penalty liability.
Trevor Nyakane: 7
Terrific first Bok start for the loosehead (hitherto more used to a few minutes here and there) who stood heroically firm at set-piece against Italian cult figure Martin Castrogiovanni.
Willie le Roux: 7.5
Fine day for several Bok reserves, introduced en masse midway through the second half. Debutant Nizaam Carr and Handre Pollard showed sparkling touches ... but Le Roux made the vital difference in injecting X-factor against the tiring Italians with his deft touches and great sniffing of opportunities.
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