Just a week ago the All Blacks had never lost to Ireland but don’t expect Italy to complete a quinella of sorts when the teams meet at Stadio Olimpico Sunday morning Australian time.
The All Blacks’ record winning streak was famously brought to an end in Chicago last week but that’s the sole blemish to date on their 2016 record and they remain comfortably atop the World Rugby rankings.
Italy had a miserable Six Nations, losing all five matches with a two point loss to France in week one arguably the high point of their campaign. Coming on top of a 2015 Rugby World Cup that saw them finish third in their Pool, and followed by a one point win over Canada in June it’s fair to say that Italy have been struggling of late.
Last time they met
It’s almost exactly four years since the sides last played each other, at the same venue, with New Zealand prevailing 42-10. Italy put up a better showing than the score might suggest, trailing just 7-13 at half time before, as so often happens, being overwhelmed in the third quarter.
The All Blacks have selected two debutants in hooker Liam Coltman and outside back Rieko Ioane but both have considerable Super Rugby experience so will be expected to handle the transition. Ioane in particular has always looked like a veteran player in a young man’s body. Flanker Sam Cane will captain the side for the second time in the absence of Kieran Read. In all there are 12 changes from the 23 beaten in Chicago.
New Italy coach Conor O’Shea turned Harlequins around and will hope to do the same with the Azzurri. He is fielding a backrow that has extreme experience in no. 8 and captain Sergio Parisse, playing his 120th Test, combining with flankers with just 12 caps between them. Starting with debutant scrumhalf Giorgio Bronzini is a big call when Edoardo Gori is on the bench – as is naming experienced utility back Tommaso Allan as a replacement.
New Italy coach Conor O’Shea in Brisbane 1999 – Brian O’Driscoll’s first test
Key Players & matchups
The importance of Sergio Parisse to Italy’s fortunes cannot be overstated. He’s their one world class player and on his day one of the best No. 8’s in world rugby. He’ll be up against Steven Luatua who it’s fair to say has had an up and down career since his promising debut in 2013.
Aaron Cruden, reportedly mulling a move to French rugby, gets perhaps a final opportunity to regain his standing as New Zealand’s premier 10 and will be up against 12-Test Giorgio Bronzini who is also looking to cement a long-term place at flyhalf.
Italy pride themselves on their scrum and will no doubt target the penalty-prone Wyatt Crockett and later Ofa Tu’ungafasi, the jury being still very much out on his scrummaging ability.
Sergio Parisse – Italy’s best player ever
Ireland exploited the All Blacks’ reluctance to commit bodies to the ruck, and consequent vulnerability to an offload or to a pick-and-drive or a one-off runner close to the contact zone. In Parisse Italy have just about the perfect player to again expose those vulnerabilities: the question will be can his fellow forwards execute such a strategy, with sufficient accuracy, for 80 minutes. As Wales and Argentina will attest, being in the game for 50 or even 60 minutes just isn’t enough.
The All Blacks meanwhile will have reviewed what went wrong in Chicago but won’t be making wholesale changes to their basic strategy. The return of Dagg suggests they’ll kick more than they did against Ireland (just 16 kicks in play, roughly 50% fewer than in the Rugby Championship). The inclusion of both Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa in the centres strongly suggests a much more “up the guts” approach than was evident last week.
The All Blacks seldom play poorly two weeks running and while Italy will give them a forward contest for at least the first 40-50 minutes I expect a comfortable victory.
All Blacks by 20
Scott Barrett gets first start – scoring try against Ireland which gave NZ a sniff
Team lists and details
15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Giorgio Bronzini, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Maxime Mbanda, 5 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Ornel Gega, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 George Biagi, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Tommaso Boni
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rieko Ioane
Date: Saturday, November 12
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 15:00 local, 01:00 AEDT (Sun)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Alex Ruiz (France), Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)