Pool A: New Zealand v Italy, OL Stadium, Lyons, Friday, 8.0 Irish time – Live Virgin Media One
It is rare indeed that New Zealand go into a World Cup game having checked their pool standings so intently. The All Blacks’ opening night defeat to France has left them in the unfamiliar position of having to avoid defeat against Italy to stay afloat in the tournament and, for once, the Azzurri are approaching this fixture with a gleam in their eyes.
While their head coach Kieran Crowley’s brother and sister-in-law may live on the neighbouring farm to the Barritt family back in Taranaki, it is not going to stop Italy from trying to secure the mother of all World Cup shocks. “This is the dessert at the end of the meal and we want to put a cherry on top of the cake,” said their captain Michele Lamaro, whose team have taken maximum points from their opening two games against Namibia and Uruguay.
A further sign of how seriously New Zealand are taking things is the selection of Sam Whitelock on the bench for his potentially record-breaking 149th Test appearance, which would take him past Richie McCaw as the most capped All Black of all time. The possibility of sentiment even slightly distracting his players is clearly not a risk their head coach Ian Foster is prepared to take.
Foster is as aware as anyone that Italy have never previously lost to New Zealand but the Azzurri are an improving side and there is a first time for everything. “History is yesterday’s newspaper, not tomorrow’s,” cautioned Foster, fully aware of the funereal front pages back home if an All Black loss came to pass.
Nor would it be in Whitelock’s script. This is his fourth World Cup and he has already lifted the trophy twice, in 2011 and 2015. Over the years his team-mates have dubbed him the “Godfather” and “Gandalf” and there is no doubting his immense contribution to the All Black cause since his debut in 2010. Back in the day he and his brothers would go out to milk the cows at 4am on Christmas Day and hard work has never fazed the grizzled lock.
It would suit everyone wearing a silver fern, though, if the All Blacks could take control early and go on to secure the bonus-point victory that would all but seal their passage to the quarter-finals.
“The start of this Test match is going to be very important,” confirmed Scott Barrett, picked to start ahead of Whitelock in the secondrow. “The way Italy have been playing, they hang on in games and are willing to grind away and push themselves for 80 minutes. The first 20 is definitely going to be intense and physical and everything that a World Cup pool deciding match should have.”
The alternative nightmare scenario involves Italy’s backrow making a serious nuisance of themselves at the breakdown and generating some useful momentum for their talented backs.
Italy last scored a try against New Zealand in 2016 but, even so, Brodie Retallick does not sound remotely complacent. “Before we even left New Zealand we talked about the fact that World Cups are different. There is that added pressure of playing Italy and the way things have gone for us and them. Not having got the result against France we need to win all three to be in control of where we want to be.”
If the All Blacks have their own flashing blades in Beauden Barritt and Will Jordan, utilising the elusive Ange Capuozzo and the powerful Monty Ioane on the wings would also enable Italy to pose a few awkward questions.
Crowley, for one, believes his players will be up for the fight. “We are under no illusions as to what is coming. They’ll try to bully us. We have to embrace that challenge. We’ve got to show some courage, we’ve got to play. We are not going out there to try to keep the score down. We are going out there to try to win the game.” – Guardian
NEW ZEALAND (v Italy): Beauden Barrett; Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Mark Telea; Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala; Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett; Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papali’i, Ardie Savea (capt).
Replacements: Dane Coles, Tamaiti Williams, Tyrel Lomax, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Cam Roigard, Damian McKenzie, Anton Leinart-Brown.
ITALY: Tommaso Allan; Ange Capuozzo, Juan Ignacio Brex, Luca Morisi, Montanna Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera, Marco Riccioni; Dino Lamb, Federico Ruzza; Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (capt), Lorenzo Cannone.
Replacements: Hame Faiva, Ivan Nemer, Simone Ferrari, Niccolo Cannone, Manuel Zuliani, Toa Halafihi, Martin Page-Relo, Paolo Odogwu.