Dicines-Charpieu, France: Italy have never beaten New Zealand before, nor reached the World Cup knock-out stages, but coach Kieran Crowley promised they would risk everything to make history in Lyon on Friday.
Having won their first two Pool A matches against Namibia and Uruguay, Italy are buzzing.
But the omens are not good. In 15 previous attempts to beat New Zealand, the Azzurri have lost every time by an average of more than 50 points.
Crowley, though, promised his side will stay true to their fast ball running game against his compatriots, regardless of the risks.
“We’ve got to show some courage, we’re going to play. We’re not going out there trying to keep the score down, we’re going out there to try to win the game,” he said.
France and South Africa have both beaten New Zealand in the last few weeks, the Springboks even clocking up a record score.
But Crowley said Italy do not have the size to try to replicate the power game that twice toppled the All Blacks.
“Different game plans suit different teams. You look at France and South Africa, they’re such big men, they’re massive,” he said.
“The way they play suits them, the way they play probably doesn’t quite suit us. But we’re not going to be stupid about how we play, we are going to kick.”
New Zealand, who lost their first ever World Cup pool stage match in the tournament opener against hosts France, know they cannot afford another defeat or they will be heading home with their tails between their legs before the competition even reaches its business end.
“They’re in a situation, the same as us, they need a win to move on,” said Crowley.
“They’re going to try and plant themselves physically on us and try and really intimidate us and bully us. They’ll come direct and come hard.”
‘Let’s risk a bit’
All Blacks coach Ian Foster agreed.
“That’s rugby! Everyone’s trying to do that, they’ll be trying to do that to us. It’s a physical game,” he said.
And All Blacks captain Ardie Savea added with a smirk: “If you’re not physical, it’s going to be a long day!”
Despite the one-sided history of this fixture, Foster says he’s seen signs of improvement in Italy’s play under Crowley.
“The last two years, we’ve seen a lot of growth in their game,” he said.
“I thought they were one of the highlights of the Six Nations the way they played and the competitiveness of all their games, so we’re expecting a tough battle.
“Looking back to the history of the last 20, 30 years doesn’t mean a lot come Friday and I think that’s a positive sign for Italy.
“They’ve taken a strategy of growing a young group coming through. They’ve clearly decided to change the way they play and to say: ‘let’s risk a little bit and see what happens’. And it’s worked well for them.”
Many people have described this Italy team as the best in their history, and they come into the match on a four-game winning run, albeit against Tier 2 sides.
New Zealand have also slumped to an all-time low of fourth in the world.
Since they last played Italy almost two years ago, they have lost eight out of 21 Tests — an unheard of record for an All Blacks outfit.
But that does not make the task facing Italy any easier, said Crowley.
“They’re not more beatable. I’ve never seen a bad All Black team, but world rugby at the top level now is getting very, very close because everyone’s exposed to the same coaching, everyone’s exposed to the same strength and conditioning, nutrition, all that,” he said.
“A few years ago the All Blacks were pretty dominant. They were probably a little bit ahead of other countries in the way they approached the game, but now you see everyone has caught up.”