Italy beat Springboks 20-18 for first time
FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Italy heaped more misery on South Africa by beating the Springboks 20-18 for the first time on Saturday.
South Africa led 12-10 at halftime but a mixture of sloppy mistakes and Italian resilience in front of a roused home crowd at Stadio Franchi earned the Azzurri their greatest victory, just a week after they were blown away by New Zealand 68-10.
"Today, we rode the roller coaster and we survived by sheer heart and courage," Italy coach Conor O'Shea said after his fifth match in charge. "They weren't just brave, they were heroic."
In the last six weeks, the embattled South Africans have suffered their heaviest home loss at the hands of New Zealand, drawn with the Barbarians, and lost to England last weekend for the first time in 10 years.
The Springboks won all 12 previous encounters against Italy since their first in 1995, all by 16 points or more. This result plumbed new depths.
"It is definitely the darkest moment of my coaching career, the toughest," Boks coach Allister Coetzee said. "But I don't want to look at it emotionally now because emotions are high. It's really difficult, it's a difficult position to be in.
"I can only congratulate Italy on an outstanding performance from a very young team.
"You just have to look at the teams: A team that has maybe lacked belief and a young team without any pressure on them, playing to get that belief. ... For us, there's a mountain to climb and as a group we have to take full responsibility, start digging to get us out of that hole."
Star wing Bryan Habana missed the England match because of a knee injury, and there was hope his return would galvanize the Springboks. He got South Africa up and running in the eighth minute, scoring a try set up by Pat Lambie and Willie le Roux.
Lambie couldn't convert, and Italy hit back almost immediately as the Boks conceded a penalty, allowing the Azzurri to set up a lineout five meters out. From that, South African-born lock Dries van Schalkwyk was driven over. Carlo Canna added the conversion.
South Africa looked dangerous on the counter and went back in front when center Damian de Allende crossed in the corner following a great break by Lambie from inside his own 22.
Lambie was on target this time, and there was more bad news for Italy as try-scorer Van Schalkwyk was forced off with a leg injury and replaced by George Biagi.
Italy reduced the deficit when Vincent Koch was penalized, and fullback Edoardo Padovani made the kick for Italy to trail 12-10.
The Springboks should have taken a bigger advantage into the break, as first Koch knocked on to waste a break by le Roux, then Lambie was hauled back millimeters from the line and Ruan Combrinck knocked on. Warren Whiteley also wasted a chance, losing the ball after 19 phases.
Italy lock Marco Fuser was yellow-carded almost immediately after halftime for taking out Lood de Jager in the air at the lineout but South Africa failed to make more of the man advantage than just a Lambie penalty.
And minutes after Fuser came back, Italy went in front 17-15 with Giovanbattista Venditti scoring a converted try fending off Elton Jantjies on a blindside run off a ruck.
A Jantjies penalty gave South Africa back the lead at 18-17, but Italy was back in front moments later when de Jager was penalized for not rolling away at a tackle. Canna nailed the penalty, and Italy led 20-18 with 15 minutes to go.
Italy thought it sealed the result two minutes from time when Fuser crashed over after another driven maul but the try was cancelled for an Italian foot in touch.
However, Italy held on, and the Stadio Franchi crowd erupted in joy at the final whistle.