South Africa blew away any remaining cobwebs prior to the Tri-Nations with a 55-11 rout of Italy in East London on Saturday.
Having laboured to victory over the Azzurri in Witbank last weekend there was a degree of prerssure on the home side to keep their momentum alive heading into a taxing Tri-Nations opener against the All Blacks at Eden Park on July 10.
They were able to do just that, scoring seven tries while playing some precise, effective rugby across the field. Fly-half Morne Steyn finished with 26 points including a brace of tries to underline his worth while winger Bryan Habana had cause to celebrate when his second-half effort drew him level with World Cup-winning scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen as South Africa's leading try-scorer.
No.8 Pierre Spies, replacement lock Flip van der Merwe and props Jannie du Plessis and BJ Botha also scored tries in John Smit's 50th win as captain. Winger Michele Sepe responded with a well-taken try for a disappointing Italy.
Italy started brightly, with skipper Sergio Parisse attempting a long-range drop-goal before sparking a flowing attack with some wonderful handling along the flank, and Steyn and Mirco Bergamasco traded penalties in the opening minutes as both sides settled.
It was the Springbok maul that created the first try, their pack rumbling ominously towards the line before Salvatore Perugini cynically chopped them down. Steyn put the ball into the corner and after several further drives from the big men the fly-half collected a flat pass under the posts and ghosted past Perugini with ease.
His conversion followed but a high tackle from Schalk Burger on Manoa Vosawai handed three points back to Bergamasco immediately. Nevertheless, the Springboks moved up a notch with some athletic bursts by Francois Louw and Bakkies Botha, the second of which drew Steyn's second penalty when Simon Picone couldn't resist a nibble at Ricky Januarie at the base of a ruck.
Steyn added another five points to his ever-expanding tally with the Springboks' second, poaching his try out wide after great work by Habana. The Stormers wing rescued a looping Januarie pass with a deft offload out of the tackle, leaving Steyn with the easiest of finishes out wide before an arching touchline conversion.
The Springboks' third arrived before the break and was a impressive team effort. No.8 Spies showed his abundance of pace to round off the try under the sticks but from a midfield turnover by Louw there was good handling between Jean de Villiers and Andries Bekker before the rangy lock put Spies on a clear run to the line with a well-judged pass.
Spies began the second-half as he ended the first, rampaging through three tackles to keep the tempo high, but his exertions were matched by those of Parisse, who continued his one-man crusade to inject some life into the Italian attack.
He was unable to prevent the latest in a long line of breakdown penalties against his side and with their maul in good health South Africa again went to the corner. Januarie revelled in quick ball, firing pass after pass across field as Italy grappled with the Springbok runners. The pace of the scrum-half's delivery was too much for the defence and tight-head du Plessis was able to crash across the line.
Habana's score followed hot on the heels of du Plessis' close-range effort and again came from a lineout deep in Italian territory. The Springboks recycled the ball quickly and effectively but were telegraphed in midfield, Januarie rescuing the attack with a brilliant one-handed scoop of the deck to Steyn. The fly-half darted for the line and found the simplest of passes to Habana, who made no mistake.
Italy's resistance was broken and the home side were in no mood to take their foot off the gas. Van der Merwe, whose Test bow again France ended with an ignominious yellow card two weeks ago, burrowed over the try-line from close range to score their sixth after direct running from replacement centre Wynand Olivier.
Italy finally bit back with a superb try from Sepe, his first in Test rugby. It was fly-half Craig Gower who crafted it, hanging an inch-perfect cross-kick into the Springbok goal area for the flying Sepe to dive in for a brilliant finish. The final say went to Botha however. The Ulster tight-head was able to power over from close range after much of the sting had left the game, his try leaving players and fans alike with smiles on their faces looking ahead to Eden Park.