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'Don't know what to expect': Ardie Savea's blunt admission about Italy

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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All Blacks star Ardie Savea doesn’t know a whole lot about the Italy side he and his teammates are set to come up against in Rome this weekend.

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He does know one thing, though, and that is if the All Blacks are to underestimate the Azzurri in front of their home fans at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday [NZT], they will do so at their own peril.

That is the sentiment Savea relayed to reporters on Monday [NZT] after the All Blacks touched down in Rome following their comprehensive 54-16 victory over Wales in Cardiff last weekend.

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Ardie Savea on Wales performance, All Blacks captaincy and preparing for Italy this weekend in Rome
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Ardie Savea on Wales performance, All Blacks captaincy and preparing for Italy this weekend in Rome

Savea was among the standouts in that win at Principality Stadium as he thrived in all aspects of the game, from his relentless defence to his destructive ball-carrying and his tireless work ethic.

Newly-crowned All Blacks centurion Beauden Barrett was named man-of-the-match in what was perhaps a sentimental nomination to acknowledge his personal milestone, but it would have been easily justifiable to bestow Savea with that title given his performance.

Savea’s efforts in the Welsh capital were a continuation of what has been a stellar few years for the 28-year-old, and we could see more of the same from him this weekend should he be picked to face Italy in the third match of his team’s end-of-year tour.

However, given the underdog status of the Six Nations minnows, who haven’t won in that competition since 2015, All Blacks boss Ian Foster is expected to make a raft of changes to his match day squad.

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That could see a number of young and inexperienced players given the chance to earn some game time at test level, and with the All Blacks carrying eight loose forwards in their current squad, Savea is in the firing line to be rested this week.

In spite of the imminent alterations that are indicative of Italy’s standing among tier one nations, Savea refused to downplay their chances of giving the All Blacks a run for their money.

“I don’t think you guys are a minnow,” he told an Italian reporter when asked what his expectations are of the Azzurri this week.

“I think every team has got their strengths and I think, for us, it’s about learning the areas we can be better in in our game that’s just gone and trying to implement that against Italy.”

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Savea may not be afforded the chance to showcase what the All Blacks have learned from their win over Wales in what would have been just his second test against Italy in his international career.

The 57-test international’s first outing against them came three years ago when the All Blacks closed out their 2018 campaign with a resounding 66-3 win in the Italian capital.

With tests between the All Blacks and Italy proving to be sporadic, Savea conceded he knows little about this weekend’s opposition.

“I don’t know what to expect. I haven’t played Italy in a while, so it should be good,” he said.

“One thing I do know is that, we’re in Rome, we’re in Italy, and the fans will back their team, so it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be tough and I think we’re ready to embrace that.”

In saying that, though, Savea anticipates tough opposition from the Italian loose forwards, who he said caused him havoc when he last played Italy.

“I haven’t actually, to be honest, done any study on Italy, but will do starting tomorrow,” he said.

“One thing I do know is that if we underestimate the Italian team, it’s going to be a long day for us.

“We know how physical they are, and I remember their loose trio, the last time we were here, carved us up and dominated us, so I know, for us, we’re not taking this game lightly and I know the lads will be ready to go.”

Unlike Savea, All Blacks assistant coach Brad Mooar has a better idea of Italian rugby after having served as Scarlets head coach for a brief period between 2019 and 2020 before returning to New Zealand as an assistant to Foster.

During his time in Wales, Mooar came up against Italian clubs Benetton Treviso and Zebre in the Pro14, now known as the United Rugby Championship.

His encounters with Benetton saw him come head-to-head with former World Cup-winning All Blacks fullback Kieran Crowley, who served as the club’s head coach for six years before being appointed Italian boss earlier this year.

Mooar told reporters that Crowley – a former New Zealand U19, Taranaki and Canada head coach – and his replacement at Benetton, former Italian test centurion Marco Bortolami – who served as Crowley’s assistant – are top-class coaches.

That much is reflected by their achievements of guiding Benetton to the Pro14 play-offs for the first time in the club’s history in 2019 and winning the makeshift Rainbow Cup earlier this year.

While Bortolami won’t be involved in this weekend’s fixture, Mooar warned that Crowley will be eager to get his tenure as Italian head coach off to a promising start.

“I certainly know that Kieran Crowley and Marco Bortolami are superb coaches and they’re very, very organised and Kieran Crowley, as the head coach, is going to be very excited to get his tenure underway in test rugby, so it’s a game we’re really looking forward to,” Mooar said.

What I also know about Italian rugby is there’s some really good attackers. I’ve seen some good tries, great footwork, and guys that want to use their skill work, so, like I say, it’s a game we’re excited about.”

Kick-off for the test between the All Blacks and Italy is scheduled for 2am on Sunday [NZT].

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