Italy exposed some South African frailties in the main event at Durban's Kings Park last night, but not so many as to give Scotland much realistic hope of turning over the Springboks in Nelspruit on Saturday.

The world's No 2 side led 20-0 at half time after a dominant performance in the opening 40 minutes, but they were rocked back on their heels and pinned down in their own half for most of the third quarter as the Italians staged a brave fightback.

Italy won that period 10-0 thanks to a try by centre Alberto Sgarbi, who was put in by a brilliant through-the-legs pass from Sergio Parisse, and a conversion and a penalty by Alberto di Bernardo, but South Africa may have been the greater beneficiaries from a spell in which their defence was given something of a workout.

Certainly, the conclusion at the finish was that Scotland will have to raise their game far beyond the level they reached against Samoa if they are to avoid a humiliation against the Springboks. South Africa looked a little rusty at times, but closing it out with three tries in the last 15 minutes suggested they had shaken the cobwebs out of their game by the end.

"We are facing the second-best team in the world next week, on their own turf," said Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, who looks likely to captain his country if Kelly Brown is ruled out by the ankle injury he sustained against Samoa. "If we don't show up again we will come off second by a long, long way. We need to turn it around big-time.

"It should be an easy fix, we have to get stuck in more. You can only play what is in front of you and we have South Africa next up, which will be a massive test after that performance. We need to pick ourselves up and come again."

South Africa certainly did not hang about in their first international of the year. Morne Steyn, the fly-half, settled any nerves they might have had with a brace of penalties in the opening 10 minutes, and hooker Adriaan Strauss took their scoreline into double figures by tumbling over from a maul for the first try, just before the quarter-hour mark

A few minutes later, winger Bjorn Basson set off on a sizzling break from his own half, a move finished off by centre JJ Englebrecht when he finished off with the touchdown.

The Springboks continued to dominate, but could not extend their lead before the break, then conceded the period after the interval as the Italians enjoyed their period of ascendancy.

But Italy's fightback fizzled out when Bryan Habana scored a typically superb solo try in the 65th minute. With victory all but assured, the Springboks grew in confidence, playing bold and skilful rugby to the end.

Captain Jean de Villiers and Basson collected further tries in the last five minutes. The scoreline at the end may have flattered South Africa a little, but that will provide little comfort to Scotland.

South Africa: W Le Roux (P Lambie, 71); B Habana, JJ Engelbrecht (J Serfontein, 71), J De Villiers (C), B Basson; M Steyn (P Lambie, 75), J Vermaak (R Pienaar, 61), T Mtawarira (T Nkkane, 73), A Strauss (C Ralepelle, 73), J Du Plessis (C Oosthuizen, 69), E Estebeth, J Kruger, F Luow, A Botha (M Coetzee, 66), P Spies.

Italy: A Masi; G Venditti, L Morsi, A Sgarbi, L McLean; A Di Bernardo, E Gori; A De Marchi (M Aguero, 45), L Ghiraldini (D Giazzon, 45), L Cittadini (M Castrogiovanni, 51), A Panavello, M Bortolami, A Zanni, R Barbieri (J Furno, 49), S Parisse.

Referee: P Gauzerre (France).

Alasdair Reid