Victory was posted by New Zealand on Saturday, but it was by no means plain sailing as the Italians bravely fell short of the mark in 27-6 defeat.
Victory was posted by New Zealand on Saturday, but it was by no means plain sailing at AMI Stadium as Italy bravely fell short of the mark in 27-6 defeat.
Assistant Coach Wayne Smith had this week admitted the selection heat is on ahead of Tri-Nations 2009. And after an Azzurri-dominated opening quarter of the game, squad roles felt the full glare of the spotlight in Christchurch.
But despite the territory statistic hugely favouring the visitors throughout, the All Blacks held their nerve to eventually pull away thanks to two scores after the hour that struggled to cover their cracks.
Italy had certainly come out fighting on their end-of-season tour finale – carrying their Melbourne form over the Tasman – with the play unbelievably reading 93 per cent in their favour a quarter in.
Add to that fact they almost crossed on four minutes but for Mils Muliaina being taken out mid-air by the onrushing Mirco Bergamasco, and this pre-billed formality might have finished even closer.
The Kiwis must now pick themselves up to face Australia and then South Africa slightly injury-hit and not in form – don't even start fast-tracking one's thoughts to events on home soil in 2011.
Several changes had been made after reversing the negative against France last weekend. Graham Henry called on a new half-back combination in the shape of Brendon Leonard and Luke McAlister, who certainly took time to bed into proceedings against the fired up Italians.
But the former Sale man's delicate chips over the top were one mini positive for the side under pressure before he got the ABs on the board with a penalty against the run of play.
The Kiwis had finally started to weather the fierce blue waves and when McAlister changed the momentum with a decent touch-finder downfield, the gap was widened to ten points.
Coming from the resulting lineout – with impressive centre Gonzalo Garcia receiving treatment way downfield for a head knock – the hosts took full advantage by stealing Leonardo Ghiraldini's lineout before Joe Rokocoko was picked out cross-field.
It was the much-need score for the winger as he powered over the Italian tacklers for his first Test score since the Romania fixture at Rugby World Cup 2007.
Some reward then finally came the way of Sergio Parisse and company after a good set-piece led to Ma'a Nonu infringing at ruck time. Fly-half Luke McLean duly knocked over the posts to send the teams in with a ten-point margin.
The half-time territorial factor was still up at 69 per cent in favour of the visitors and there would have been plenty of encouraging signs for Mallett to take into the dressing room. Henry on the other hand…
The latter had obviously laid down the law during the break and must have warned that replacements would be utilised sooner rather than later if things didn't improve.
And he stuck to his word on 53 minutes as scrum-half Piri Weepu, flanker George Whitelock and prop Tony Woodcock all emerged from their tracksuits in an attempt to lift the intensity.
In the end though, it was a man called in during midweek that put the fixture beyond doubt as second row Isaac Ross galloped over following good work from Isaia Toeava, who had freed up space to allow Ali Williams' replacement to stroll through under the uprights.
The gloom was finally lifted and Ross proved the catalyst for their change of fortunes, as he enjoyed more ball on halfway before Nonu set up flanker Whitelock to seal matters.
But it was no means the margin of the last seven meetings between these two nations, which had seen the southern hemisphere heavyweights break the 50-point barrier.
Man-of-the-match: Plenty of Italians performed well in Christchurch with mentions going to Craig Gower, Kaine Robertson and Leonardo Ghiraldini. But the award goes to midweek call-up Isaac Ross, who is quickly establishing himself as a worthy understudy to Ali Williams. The lock fully deserved his try and was very busy with ball in-hand.
Moment of the match: Ross was involved in this too by breaking the line on halfway before Ma'a Nonu fed George Whitelock to score on debut. How rugby should be played.
Villain of the match: Played in good spirits so it goes unclaimed.
For New Zealand:
Tries: Rokocoko, Ross, G Whitelock
Con: McAlister 3
Pen: McAlister 2
Pen: McLean 2
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina (capt), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Josevata Rokocoko, 10 Luke McAlister, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 George Whitelock, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Cory Jane.
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Craig Gower, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Ignacio Rouyet, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Franco Sbaraglini, 17 Fabio Staibano, 18 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Giulio Toniolatti, 21 Kristopher Burton, 22 Matteo Pratichetti.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)
Assessor: Wayne Erickson (Australia)