Mtawarira back as Boks prepare for forward battle vs Italy

OMAEZAKI, Japan (AP) — Tight forwards Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi and Lood de Jager have forced their way into South Africa's full-strength starting XV for Friday's Rugby World Cup match against Italy at Shizuoka.

Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus made only the three changes to the lineup he started with in the opening Pool B loss to defending champion New Zealand on Sept. 21.

Prop Mtawarira, hooker Mbonambi and lock De Jager, who all started in South Africa's win over Namibia last Saturday, replace Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Franco Mostert, who were all relegated to the bench.

Erasmus went for a 6-2 bench with only two backs, saying the game would likely be decided in the forwards and set pieces and "we wanted to maximize our options."

"People may think it is a gamble to have only two back replacements, but we want to have plenty of ammunition for what is likely to be a major forward battle," he said. "It's a 23-player game these days and the players who come on will be expected to contribute almost as much in game time as those who start among the front rowers.

"But for this game we are asking the players we have chosen to start to set the tone."

Flyhalf Handré Pollard needs four points to reach 400 career points in test matches, and 11 to surpass Percy Montgomery's Springboks record of 111 points in Rugby World Cup tournaments.

Two players weren't available for the match-day 23 because of injuries, with Trevor Nyakane returning home because of a calf injury, and Jesse Kriel sidelined with a hamstring strain.

Nyakane is replaced by Vincent Koch, while there is no direct replacement for Kriel.

South Africa has a 13-1 record against Italy — the only loss coming in 20-18 loss in Florence in 2016 — but this will be the first meeting between the teams at the Rugby World Cup.

"Italy have had their eyes on this match for a couple of years and will have planned and schemed how to bring us down once again," Erasmus said. "This is a defining match for them and while we were focusing on the New Zealand game, they will have had their eyes on this one as the key to the quarterfinals for them."

Italy leads Pool B with 10 points from bonus-point wins over Namibia and Canada, but will be facing a resurgent Springboks outfit desperate to qualify for the knockout stage. The top two teams in each group progress to the quarterfinals.

"We have to be at our absolute best if we are to beat them — we are at the stage already where there are no second chances," Erasmus said. "That's a message we have been emphasizing to the players this week."

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South Africa: Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handré Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (captain), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Tendai Mtawarira. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff. Vincent Koch, RG Snyman, Franco Mostert, Francois Louw, Herschel Jantjies, Frans Steyn.

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More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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