Italy: this is our final
Azzurri on front foot for glory but Jennings insists Irish ready for war
ITALY have fallen foul of three Six Nations rivals in the last four World Cups and will hope not to fall to another when they face Ireland on Sunday in an effective shoot-out for a quarter-final place.
Italy have never progressed beyond the group stage and have usually had their Six Nations rivals to thank for it.
In 1995 they made England work for a 27-20 victory but suffered more from their failure to beat Samoa, while four years later they were brushed aside by England as they lost all four group games.
In 2003 Italy were a much more streetwise side and after beating Tonga and Canada they had high hopes of repeating their Six Nations win over Wales from earlier in the year.
However, hard-hit by injuries and playing their fourth match in 14 days, they fell away to lose the decider for the runners-up spot 27-15.
Four years later they found themselves facing Scotland in their last game and, fully rested, they seemed on course for a breakthrough victory when they led 10-6 only to suffer from the sensational goalkicking of Chris Paterson, who landed six penalties on the day to secure an 18-16 victory. Italy still had a chance to win it when David Bortolussi lined up a late penalty but, unlike Paterson who had a 100pc record for the tournament, he sent it wide.
Facing Ireland, a team they have lost to 15 times in a row, Italy would seem destined for another frustrating failure but have this year's Six Nations to draw on.
They were the better team in their Rome meeting but allowed Ireland to snatch a 13-11 victory with a late Ronan O'Gara drop goal.
"Everybody in the Irish camp realises we didn't deserve to win that match so we realise we are up against a very experienced team with some quality players and good leaders," Irish flanker Shane Jennings said this week.
Having gone on to beat France and narrowly lose to Wales, Italy showed that that performance was no flash in the pan and they have targeted this match from the day the draw was made.
"Four years ago we missed a very great, historic chance against Scotland," said centre Gonzalo Canale.
"We were a young group then and we have improved and this match will be our final."
Anyone expecting a feast of running rugby in Dunedin is likely to be disappointed as Ireland will stick to the strong-arm tactics that negated Australia's threat in their famous pool win two weeks ago. Italy will base their entire game plan on their pack.
"They are a quality front row, they are good players, they have a strong scrum and have done a lot of damage but we know we can match them," said Jennings. Victory for Ireland would give them a potential quarter-final against Wales and a probable semi-final against either England or France -- a dream draw for a team which has never gone beyond the final eight.
An Italian win and first quarter-final appearance -- probably against South Africa -- would mark real progress and be a fine send-off for coach Nick Mallett, who is leaving at the end of the World Cup campaign.
"Nick's had a lot of experience with big games and he really helps the boys stay calm and focused," Italy's Australia-born centre Luke McLean said.
"Our defensive line is a lot better than it was maybe a fair few years ago. I think that's something he's focused on a lot and it's paid dividends."