Defiant Italy ready for All Blacks
New Zealand have made sweeping changes to the side that beat Scotland 51-22 last week, but what some may see as a charitable move has not been designed to give the hosts a fighting chance in Rome.
When it comes to Italy, still an emerging rugby power, and the All Blacks, two-time world champions and the most successful national team to have graced the sport, there really is no contest.
Italy have lost all 11 previous encounters beginning with a 70-6 reverse in the 1987 World Cup to a far tighter 20-6 test defeat at Milan's San Siro stadium in 2009.
Yet their record, and the fact the Azzurri fought their way to an edgy 28-23 win over minnows Tonga last week, has not dimmed the hopes of Italy coach Jacques Brunel.
"If New Zealand are the Everest of rugby, we must be ready to climb as far and as high as we can and make light of the cold and bad weather," Brunel said Friday.
"Otherwise we're better off staying in the comfort of Mont Blanc."
For the growing army of rugby fans in Italy, a much-improved performance from last week's display in windy and rainy Brescia would be a good start.
While a defiant Tonga side were giving Italy plenty of food for thought in Brescia, New Zealand were dismantling Scotland 51-22. Their win in Murrayfield, however, still left plenty of room for improvement, according to head coach Steve Hansen.
"The team last week put a stake in the ground, and while the performance was nowhere near perfect, there was some quality rugby played," he said.
"There is now an opportunity for this group to build on that."
Intent on making sure most of his touring party get involved at some stage or another, and ahead of arguably tougher tests against England and Wales, Hansen has rung the changes for Italy.
Kieran Read has notably been handed the captain's armband for the first time after World Cup-winning skipper Richie McCaw was rested, while star pivot Dan Carter is on the bench in favour of understudy Aaron Cruden.
Changes have been made elsewhere in the team, some enforced: Liam Messam has been called in at blindside flanker to replace Adam Thomson, banned for one match for stamping on the head of Scotland loose forward Alasdair Strokosch.
However that does not rhyme with lack of ambition in what Hansen believes will be a "torrid" encounter in the Eternal City.
"We are expecting another torrid test against the Italians in front of their passionate fans," he added.
"They are renowned for their forward play so they will certainly be up for the challenge and we will have to match that physicality.
"The team is excited about playing in front of the sold out crowd of 80-thousand and this will only add to their motivation."
After last week's performance, Italy captain and No 8 Sergio Parisse revealed his frustration and warned there can be no repeat in Rome.
"It's an important week for us, we'll regroup and train for next week in calm conditions but we can't play like that for 80 minutes against the All Blacks," he said.
Italy have been working on key areas, and Brunel made a total of eight changes from the side that started against Tonga, notably with Mirco Bergamasco returning to the wing from a small injury layoff.
In all probabilty, he will get his wish to see "in which direction our project needs to go" against the "strongest team in the world".
But the bespectacled Frenchman – an assistant coach of France when Les Bleus beat the All Blacks 20-18 in Cardiff during the 2007 World Cup -may secretly be hoping for more.
"Every game is different, but to put New Zealand in trouble we have to be in the game," Brunel said.
"The last time I faced the All Blacks, as an assistant coach of France, we won. I hope to experience more of the same."
New Zealand: 15-Beauden Barrett; 14- Hosea Gear; 13-Conrad Smith; 12-Ma'a Nonu; 11-Julian Savea; 10-Aaron Cruden; 9- Aaron Smith; 8-Kieran Read (capt), 7-Sam Cane, 6-Liam Messam; 5-Brodie Retallick; 4-Ali Williams; 3-Charlie Faumuina; 2-Keven Mealamu; 1- Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16-Dane Coles; 17- Wyatt Crockett; 18- Ben Franks,; 19-Sam Whitelock; 20- Victor Vito; 21- Tawera Kerr-Barlow; 22- Dan Carter; 23- Cory Jane
Italy: 15-Andrea Masi; 14-Giovambattista Venditti; 13- Tommaso Benvenuti; 12- Alberto Sgarbi, 11-Mirco Bergamasco; 10-Luciano Orquera; 9-Edoardo Gori; 8-Sergio Parisse (capt); 7-Simone Favaro; 6- Alessandro Zanni; 5-Francesco Minto; 4-Antonio Pavanello;3- Martin Castrogiovanni;2- Leonardo Ghiraldini; 1- Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16-Davide Giazzon; 17- Alberto De Marchi; 18- Lorenzo Cittadini; 19- Quintin Geldenhuys; 20-Mauro Bergamasco, 21-Robert Barbieri; 22- Tobias Botes; 23- Luke McLean.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRL)