Springboks v Italy: Heavyweights key in pool-stage knockout

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              Italy’s Sergio Parisse, left, carries the ball while being tackled by Namibia during the Rugby World Cup Pool B game between Italy and Namibia in Osaka, western Japan, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. (Ichiro Sakano/Kyodo News via AP)
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HAMAMATSU, Japan (AP) — It’s a pool-stage game with a knockout effect at the Rugby World Cup. Both teams are relying on their heavyweights to settle it.

Realistically, South Africa and Italy both need to win to stay in contention at the World Cup when they play in Pool B on Friday.

Two-time winner South Africa will be heading for a group-stage exit for the first time ever if it loses. An Italy win would put the Azzurri through to the quarterfinals for the first time.

It’s no secret it’s all on the line.

Gone is any talk of open, running rugby. The focus is on what’s expected to be an attritional forward contest. And the dropped goal is back in the reckoning, as it often is in high-stakes games at the Rugby World Cup.

South Africa and Italy will take a win any way they can in Shizuoka.

“For us, this is a crunch game,” Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus said. “And if we have to grind it out, this is a do-or-die game. Just beat Italy no matter how, even if it’s just a drop goal.

“We want to get out of the pool. The win is the ultimate.”

The Italians have the same philosophy.

“If you don’t front up physically against South Africa, you’ve already lost the match,” Italy coach Conor O’Shea said. “You must take them on in the forwards. We must treat it like the last match we’ll ever play.”

The weather, with rain a possibility around Shizuoka Prefecture on Japan’s Pacific coast, only nails down the theory that this meeting will be won in the tight exchanges.

Erasmus and O’Shea can’t have been clearer on their matching approaches. Of course, that could just be talk and there may be some misdirection. But they have both put their money where their mouth is.

Both coaches loaded their benches with big men. Both have six forwards and just two backs in the reserves to underline how decisive the heavy artillery may be. Italy nearly went for more big units.

“We did think about going with an 8-0 split (on the bench) but that would have been a bit over the top,” O’Shea said.

But that forward focus has also left both lineups light in backline options, and that will require some juggling if either team has injuries there. It’s a risk both are willing to take to get the advantage up front.

South Africa has just scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies and utility Frans Steyn as its backs on the bench. Italy has scrumhalf Callum Braley and flyhalf Carlo Canna as backup.

O’Shea did select center Michele Campagnaro on the wing to give his team some versatility if needed. Erasmus said he’d have to get “creative” if he had issues in the backs. He even raised the possibility of scrumhalf Faf de Klerk playing flyhalf in an emergency.

No. 8 Sergio Parisse is back to captain Italy in the most significant team news after missing the victory over Canada. He’ll scoop up another record. Parisse is already playing in a record-equaling fifth Rugby World Cup. He’ll become the most capped northern hemisphere player when he runs out at Shizuoka Stadium, overtaking Ireland center Brian O’Driscoll’s 141 test caps. Only former New Zealand captain Richie McCaw (148) has played more tests.

This is the 36-year-old Parisse’s last World Cup, so expect everything from the inspirational skipper in an effort to get Italy to the quarterfinals for the first time.

“We’ve thought about this (game) for four years,” Parisse said. “We want to be competitive to the end. We don’t have the pressure on us. They are the ones who will be feeling the pressure … We just want to go out and not finish the match with any regrets.”