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South Africa vs Italy Test Preview

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Kings Park in Durban is not a stadium Italy remember fondly having suffered a 101-point Test defeat by South Africa there 14 years ago.

It is the heaviest loss suffered by the Azzurri (Blues) in their 84-year history, but they return to the ground on Saturday hoping to offer much greater resistance after an encouraging Six Nations campaign.

Italy began and ended the 2013 championship with home victories, getting the better of France and Ireland, and restricted England to a seven-point win at Twickenham.

Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer is not buying into the domestic media belief that supporters can prepare for a green and gold try fest in the second part of a double-header that kicks off with Samoa against Scotland.

“I do not agree with the assertion that the June Tests will be easy,” said the 45-year-old coach as he starts the second season of a four-year contract that ends after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“Italy and Scotland finished higher in the Six Nations this year than Ireland and France and arrived here confident while Samoa gave the Springboks a real scare at the last World Cup.

“But the players and management are excited about getting together again and doing our best to make South Africans proud of the Springboks,” added the former Bulls coach.

A green and gold squad lacking a number of injured stars, including No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, hooker Bismarck du Plessis, fly-half Johan Goosen and right wing JP Pietersen, are preparing for the more demanding Rugby Championship.

That involves home and away Tests against reigning world champions New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, and there are also November internationals in Wales, Scotland and France.

Often under media fire for being too conservative in his selections and tactics, Meyer surprised some critics by choosing new cap Willie le Roux from Super 15 surprise side Central Cheetahs at full-back.

Le Roux, 23, is not a typical South African back — he prefers brain to brawn, going round an opponent rather than through him, and many of his tries and off-loads have a stamp of class.

Bulls scrum-half Jano Vermaak, 28, is the other debutant and deserves a chance ahead of uninspiring Ruan Pienaar and Francois Hougaard, who is regaining fitness after a lengthy injury absence.

Fellow Bull Morne Steyn is back at fly-half thanks to superb Super Rugby goal kicking after his right boot let him down last year and he lost out to younger, inventive Coastal Sharks playmaker Patrick Lambie.

While captain and centre Jean de Villiers is the sole backline survivor from a 16-15 win in England last November, six forwards remain with workaholic Cheetahs hooker Adriaan Strauss continuing to deputise for Du Plessis.

Western Stormers’ Vermeulen will be sorely missed as he is an intimidating ball carrier, a role that will fall largely to effective but injury prone Willem Alberts against the Italians.

If France-born Azzurri coach Jacques Brunel, 59, needed extra motivational material this week, he needed to look no further than the rugby column in a Johannesburg daily.

Italy were dismissed as “second rate opposition” ripe for the slaughter by South Africa irrespective of who Meyer chose from a 34-man squad named for the three-week tournament.

Former amateur club full-back Brunel is wary of fatigue: “We are anticipating a huge physical battle, which will pose a massive challenge for us after a very tiring 11-month season.”

He has kept eight of the side that started against Ireland and gives a first cap to 32-year-old fly-half Alberto Di Bernardo in place of fellow Argentina-born playmaker Luciano Orquera.

South Africa face Scotland and Italy meet Samoa next weekend in the second round with four points for a win, two for a draw, one for losing by less than eight points, and one for scoring at least four tries in a game.

The novel tournament concludes on June 22 at Loftus Versfeld

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