'No north-south divide' as Aus survive scare
Australia coach Robbie Deans admitted rugby's north-south divide is shrinking after Italy took the Wallabies to within three points of a major upset in a 22-19 win for the visitors on Saturday.
Australia came to Florence, the scene of a 32-14 win over the Italians in 2010, on the back of an encouraging 20-14 win over England at Twickenham which made amends for a 33-6 thrashing to France a fortnight ago.
However, Deans and Australia are likely to come under fresh scrutiny after conceding 13 points in a barren second half which almost gave Italy their first victory over the former world champions.
After hearing South Africa had narrowly beaten England 16-15 at Twickenham on Saturday, Deans gave his opinion on the supposed gulf in class between the northern and southern hemispheres.
"It doesn't sound like a big divide to me. There's nothing between them, you saw that today," said the New Zealander.
Australia will now head to Cardiff, where captain Nathan Sharpe will pick up his 116th and final cap, looking to seal their tour with a third win on the trot against Wales.
Sharpe, meanwhile, put Australia's result in perspective.
"It's very hard to win over here against a fired-up Italian side. I think there was a great amount of character shown by our boys," he said.
"It sure would have been nice to kick on from that first half but in a lot of ways it's a great lesson for us to take forward, particularly into next year."
By then Sharpe will be enjoying retirement, but for Italy the quest to compete with the big boys playing expansive, open rugby continues.
Virtually absent in an error-strewn first half in which Nick Cummins scored Australia's only try in the 18th minute to cement a 22-6 halftime lead, Italy returned for the second period in defiant fashion.
Deans admitted they had expected a different Italy to reappear.
"That's why we put such an emphasis on the start because we knew, in this context – it's a great stadium, it's a great arena to play rugby in –that if we gave the Italian side a sniff they'd come charging at us," he said.
"And that's exactly what happened. Obviously the start of the second half, wasn't the start we were looking for."
Only a minute after the kick-off Robert Barbieri claimed the Azzurri's only try of the game when he ran into the in-goal area to touch down after the ball had been kicked through, with Orquera converting.
When Orquera kicked a penalty minutes later to take the scores to 16-22, the fightback was on.
Italy's only positive from the first half had been their domination at the scrums. At times, it was their only real weapon for garnering points, via intermittent penalties against Australia.
Although enjoying more space and playing more flowing rugby in the second half, Italy continued to dominate the set-pieces.
"One of our biggest issues in the second half was we didn't have the ball, we didn't have possession," said Deans.
Sharpe added: "Our maul defence was okay. Scrummaging, certainly, as Robbie alluded to, we didn't get the set-piece ball we hoped to get.... you would say that the Italians scrummaged very well."
Italy's confidence, boosted by captain Sergio Parisse narrowly missing a second try early in the second half, gave them the momentum and for a short period there was a real feeling they would make their 15th game against Australia a win.
The Wallabies, however, defended well and flirted with finishing on a high when Adam Ashley-Cooper broke through only to be hauled down 10 metres from the tryline.
While buoyed by their positive second half, Italy coach Jacques Brunel simply had to lament their poor first half display.
"I'm disappointed about our first half, we made too many errors and gave them too many chances to put points on the board," said the Frenchman.