ROME – Italy coach Conor O'Shea concedes his side are braced for a 'David against Goliath' challenge against world champions New Zealand in their final November Test on Saturday at the Stadio Olimpico.
The All Blacks arrive in Rome having lost 16-9 to Ireland in Dublin last weekend, a further wake-up call for the world's top team after a defeat by the Springboks back in September.
But even if New Zealand's aura of invincibility has started to wane less than a year out from the World Cup, O'Shea is expecting another rough ride from a side the Italians have never beaten in 14 previous meetings.
The last clash between the two teams was in 2016 in Rome, with the All Blacks winning 68-10.
“It will be important not to think too much about their potential, above all a team of this level,” said Irishman O'Shea.
“They are like Brazil in football, it's a game that everyone wants to play. We want to end the November Tests with a good performance, playing our best rugby.”
O'Shea made just one enforced change to the side that lost 26-7 to Australia in Padua last weekend. Earlier in the month they beat Georgia 28-17 but lost 54-7 to Six Nations champions Ireland in Chicago.
Benetton Treviso wing Luca Sperandio comes in for Mattia Bellini who scored Italy's only try against the Wallabies before going off with a shoulder injury.
Italy's Kiwi ties
But the Italians have two New Zealand-born players - Jayden Hayward and Dean Budd - in their ranks.
Fullback Hayward, 31, was New Zealand's promising player of the year in his debut season with Taranaki in 2008, but has been playing in Italy for Treviso since 2014, making his Test debut last year.
Lock Budd, 32, joined Treviso in 2012 and has played 14 Tests since qualifying for Italy in 2017.
“There’s a genuine excitement to get out there and play this game that we love and are blessed to play” - @Tj_Perenara looks forward to starting in the 9️⃣ jersey against Italy this weekend. #ITAvNZL 🇳🇿🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/7mE1cAtPCa— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 23, 2018
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has rung the changes after last week's loss to Ireland.
Hansen retained fly-half Beauden Barrett and fullback Damian McKenzie in a starting line-up featuring 11 changes from the side that ran out in Dublin, resisting calls to start the in-form Richie Mo'unga.
Instead Mo'unga stays on the bench as Hansen sticks with his strategy of using Barrett and McKenzie as dual playmakers.
The combination has failed to fire so far, with the world champions scraping to a 16-15 win over England before losing 16-9 to Ireland last week.
“We've got an excited group of players who are keen to make the most of their opportunity and represent the jersey, themselves and their country with a strong performance on Saturday,” said Hansen.
“The group is aware that this is our last week together and they're determined to really prepare well, play well and enjoy every moment of the week.
“The Italians will bring plenty of line speed, with a wide defensive spread, and again allows us to experience playing this type of team. They're big men who play with a lot of passion and pride.
“We saw in their match against Australia last week just how difficult they can be to play if you allow them to dictate the terms of the game.
“We look forward to again playing at Stadio Olimpico in front of the Italian people and delivering a performance we can all be proud of.”
Agence France-Presse (EFP)