Italian job:  Bongi Mbonambi, front, makes a rare start for the Boks on Saturday, while Pieter-Steph du Toit returns after missing last week’s Test with concussion. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Italian job: Bongi Mbonambi, front, makes a rare start for the Boks on Saturday, while Pieter-Steph du Toit returns after missing last week’s Test with concussion. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Several Springbok players made their way to nearby Venice on their day off on Wednesday and it would not have been lost on them that the city is struggling against sinking into the sea.

It is a feeling with which they are familiar. Their coach, Allister Coetzee, has been trying to keep his head above water for much of the past year and it is not difficult to see why he believes his buoyancy is inextricably linked to the assembly of his best available team.

The prevailing tide dictates that he pushes his best resources into battle against Italy on Saturday but he has been forced into two significant amendments. Hooker Malcolm Marx, who has started every Test in 2017, injured his shoulder against France last weekend and does not feature in the match 23 as Bongi Mbonambi makes a maiden start.

On the side of the scrum, Pieter-Steph du Toit’s return had been widely expected and he will fill the void left by Siya Kolisi, who has travelled home on paternity leave.

Marx’s absence is a huge setback for the Boks, as Coetzee is expecting a dogfight in damp conditions, an activity Marx would have relished. "We have to make sure Malcolm recovers 100%," Coetzee said.

Marx has set himself apart in the hooker position, to the point that Mbonambi has had very little game time, collecting just 93 minutes over the past year.

"Bongi deserves to start. He’s played well in the Currie Cup, especially in the semis and in the final," said Coetzee.

"I rate Bongi highly as a player. Given the opportunity, I know he’ll take it. He’s been playing behind Malcolm, who has been in outstanding form.

"Bongi comes with his own strengths. His defensive ability is unbelievably good. He has to make sure we have an accurate, functioning lineout. He’s a great scrummager, no doubt about that. He plays towards the ball and he has a good engine," said the coach.

Chiliboy Ralepelle will also get a chance to emerge from the shadows. The third-choice hooker at the Sharks, Ralepelle may also be short of a gallop.

"My thoughts are quite clear on that. He had a great Super Rugby campaign. His experience is invaluable. He comes with a wealth of experience as a set-piece hooker.

"Don’t just look at general play," said Coetzee. "In the northern hemisphere, you are tested by how accurate you can put the ball into the lineout."

Also on the bench is Warrick Gelant and there is every chance that the Bulls dynamo will make his debut on Saturday.

"He is really a phenomenally attack-minded player. He’s got great footwork."

Coetzee will be hugely relieved that captain Eben Etzebeth has come through this week without suffering further mischief to the lower leg injury he acquired against France.

He was carefully managed during the week.

Overall, however, Coetzee’s selections speak of a man in survival mode.

He cannot afford another mishap like the one he had to undergo in Florence in 2016.

Defeat will almost certainly spell the end of his reign as Bok coach at the end of the tour.

His selection policy at year-end has stood in stark contrast to the building phase that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has embarked upon.

The All Blacks have two additional non-Test engagements on their northern hemisphere tour, which gives the coach the opportunity to blood several new players with a view to the 2019 Rugby World Cup and beyond.

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