Rugby World Cup preview: All Blacks v Italy

12:50 pm on 28 September 2023
Italy's right wing Lorenzo Pani (CR) is congratulated by Italy's inside centre Paolo Garbisi (CL) as he celebrates after scoring Italy's first try during the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Italy and Uruguay at Stade de Nice in Nice, southern France on September 20, 2023.

File photo. Italy's right wing Lorenzo Pani is congratulated by Italy's inside centre Paolo Garbisi as he celebrates after scoring Italy's first try during the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Italy and Uruguay. Photo: AFP

Preview - In what will be a world-first, the All Blacks are in a now-or-never match against perennial whipping boys Italy. Anyone feeling nervous? Because the naming of the team (at another ungodly hour) probably should have eased that a bit - Ian Foster has brought out the big guns as this is about the top side he can name.

Had the opening result against France gone the other way, it's likely this one might not have featured what is essentially the team that should be playing in the quarterfinal. Note the word 'should'. While the Italians' record against the All Blacks is compelling as their nation's military success post the Roman Empire, there is something very niggly about this fixture.

Firstly, Italy aren't as awful as they usually are. In the past, they've only ever managed to only drag the All Blacks down to their level and still lose handily anyway, in some of the most aesthetically putrid test matches ever played.

But under former All Black Kieran Crowley, they've managed to nurture some exciting talent in the likes of Ange Capuzzo and Paolo Garbisi, as well as claiming the scalps of Wales and the Wallabies in recent times. So the signs are there that if the All Blacks have a bad day, the Italians have enough talent and smarts to take full advantage of it. Think of the two losses to Argentina in 2020 and last year, because most of the All Black side playing this weekend were involved in those tests as well.

A question that we thought was answered has somehow come back around into the discussion. The dual axis of Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett looked to have been working seamlessly in the Rugby Championship success, but on reflection those wins might be telling a bit more about the opposition than the All Blacks. Whatever the Springboks are up to with their creative use of the bench was definitely being experimented with at Mt Smart, and still seems to be happening this deep into the World Cup. So really, the excellent games that Mo'unga and Barrett had that night probably need that asterisk next to them.

That's because against France, it just didn't click, or at least wasn't allowed to. There's been no secret that this tournament will most almost certainly be won by the team that kicks the ball the most efficiently, so Mo'unga and Barrett have it all on their shoulders to make sure the game is being played in the right half of the field.

Elsewhere, Foster will be relieved he can finally jot Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell's names down on the team sheet. Again, the loose forward trio was one of the success stories of earlier in the year, but their dominance came through far more reliable brute force rather than cashing in on tactical ineptitude. If all goes according to plan, the pair will be reintroduced to the fray in the second half to combine with Ardie Savea and then carry on towards a quarter final.

That's looking like it'll be a rematch with Ireland, a fixture that will quickly become the most talked-about game of the tournament when it finally rolls around.

'Finally' is the best way to describe it because right now, the World Cup feels like it is taking forever. No disrespect to Namibia (who have had a shocking time with injuries and suspensions) but given that game was little more than a glorified training run for the All Blacks, by the time they play Italy it will have been three weeks since they played a meaningful test match - that they lost.

There is a good reason as to why the length of time between fixtures is so long, due to player welfare and making sure all teams are treated fairly, but it is hardly making for a compelling spectacle on this side of the world right now.

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