South Africa recorded a workmanlike 44-10 win over Italy in their opening Castle Lager Incoming Series match in a game that both exhilarated and disappointed at the same time.
The Springboks scored five tries to one but were sloppy at times and left the game satisfied but knowing that they still have a lot of work to do before they reach the Castle Rugby Championship in a few months' time.
Then again, it was never going to be easy in week one after a long, hard Vodacom Super Rugby season and the Bok coaching staff will know that as they head into next week’s game against Scotland in Nelspruit.
Yet on a night where the expectation was so high, the Boks delivered for a large part of the game, but were starved of possession and scored most of their tries off turnovers, something that will go down as a concern.
After racking up a 20-0 halftime lead – and missing a few opportunities as well – they had almost no possession in the first 20 minutes of the second half before recovering and running away with the game in the end.
Italy ended the game with 57 per cent of possession and this, combined with the way they dominated the scrums, will leave the visitors a bit happier than if they simply read the scoreline.
The Boks were good in the lineouts for the most part, although they did lose a few balls when Juandre Kruger was off the field. The scrum, however, will leave them a lot less happy as they conceded four penalties at the set-piece and were generally bossed around by the Azzurri, who produced some exceptional scrumming on the evening.
Too many balls were left to bounce from kick-offs, and some of the receiving was way too sloppy for a team at this level, and is no doubt likely to be addressed in the training sessions in the week to come.
But despite all this there were several positives that will bring a wry smile to the Bok faces on a night where several young and inexperienced players played together for the first time.
The most pleasing of these was the debut for young Arno Botha, whose work rate and defence were exceptional and he combined superbly with Francois Louw, who had another impressive game in a Bok jersey.
Considering the former SA under-20 captain was a late replacement for Willem Alberts, it is hard not to be impressed with his outing, and it is even more bizarre when you consider he cannot break into a regular starting role for the Vodacom Bulls in Super Rugby.
Willie le Roux also had a pleasing debut, and for the most part slotted in easily with the backline, although at times it did seem as if he tried to force matters a bit too much. Either way, he ticked all the right boxes to believe he has a solid future at this level and will be more than pleased with his debut.
Jano Vermaak was also eager and gave good service to his backline despite being harassed by a mostly offside Italian defence, but it was a concern as he limped off with what looked like a hamstring injury in the second half and more detail on his injury is sure to follow soon.
There was also a classy appearance by Bryan Habana, whose try and general all-round play was a nightmare for the Italians, while captain Jean de Villiers, lock Eben Etzebeth and hooker Adriaan Strauss were the pick of the team.
Even flyhalf Morne Steyn, who contributed a flawless 19 points, looked more attacking with Le Roux helping as a second playmaker behind the ruck.
The Boks exerted their early dominance well, with Steyn kicking two penalties early on before Strauss walked himself over the line with the aid of a perfect lineout drive close to the line. To be fair, Italy were down to 14 men after Marco Bortalami was sin-binned for a professional foul in the previous lineout.
In the 23rd minute Habana sparked a great counterattack, running cross field and evading Italian tacklers before sending a perfect ball to a flying JJ Engelbrecht, who wasn’t going to be stopped at speed and ran in the second Bok try.
From there on, it was as if the Boks took their foot off the pedal, and they trundled into halftime a bit disappointed not to have added to their scoreline, with some basic errors counting against them.
Things took a downturn early in the second half as Italy simply refused to give them the ball and then took advantage from a brief moment of madness as Bjorn Basson put in a head-high tackle and was sent to the bin for his efforts.
With the Boks down to 14 men, Italy were spurred on and after assaulting the Bok line for several phases, captain Sergio Parisse sent a flamboyant pass to Alberto Sgarbi, who went over to score.
A penalty shortly afterwards for Alberto di Bernardo brought the Italians to an uncomfortable 10 points of the Boks, before the home side finally grabbed the game and ran away with it.
Again it was Habana who sparked the revival, as a turnover ball was sent wide into his hands and he drifted inside, then put the burners on and outstripped the defence for a great try.
The Boks fluffed two chances in the space of minutes as first Bjorn Basson hacked the ball ahead and Engelbrecht knocked it on going over the line and then the same Engelbrecht lost the ball in the other corner as he was going over to score.
Despite this, it was clear the Boks had their spark back, and it showed as Le Roux sliced into the backline to deliver the ball to a flying Basson on the touchline, who, in turn, drew the defence before sending De Villiers away for his 21st test try.
Basson was to have the final say in the game, as he pounced on a poor pass to intercept and run 50 metres to score his first international try, and cap off a solid start to the international season for coach Heyneke Meyer.
And it was a good start. Not great by any means, but workmanlike and sparked by moments of hard work paying off and exceptional talent.
The Bok management will savour the victory, but not for long.
They know where they stand at the moment and they know the work that awaits.
But for the first outing of the international season, it was more than satisfactory.
South Africa – Tries: Adriaan Strauss, JJ Engelbrecht, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, Bjorn Basson. Conversions: Morne Steyn (4), Pat Lambie. Penalties: Morne Steyn (3).
Italy – Try: Alberto Sgarbi. Conversions: Alberto Di Bernardo. Penalty: Di Bernardo.