New Zealand avoided a potential European banana skin on Saturday with a 20-6 victory over Italy at a sold-out San Siro venue.
New Zealand avoided a potential European banana skin on Saturday in an historic 20-6 victory over Italy.
Despite holding a two-score cushion with just eight minutes remaining, the second-string visitors were under serious pressure which arguably should have translated into a penalty try after several scrum resets close to the line.
The passionate crowd were baying for official Stuart Dickinson to make the short jog under the poles. He did not and the All Blacks escaped.
In the end the 80 minutes did not match the occasion though. Welcome banners for New Zealand added to the warm reception during pre-game, which they had also received all week in the fashion capital. However, they seemed to find the atmosphere and expectation a little overwhelming in a disjointed overall effort.
Players who were handed chances to impress such as Mike Delany, Tanerau Latimer and Ben Smith struggled in their quest to impress ahead of facing England next week, with the latter fumbling his first touch in the full Test jumper.
Bledisloe Cup holders New Zealand were also comprehensively beaten up front and in the aforementioned scrums by Leicester's destroyer Martin Castrogiovanni alongside experienced loosehead Salvatore Perugini.
In the middle of that grizzly duo was an in-form hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, who proved a constant livewire for Italy and was slighly more deserving than opposite number Corey Flynn in claiming the only try of the first period..scratch that, the game.
It took the visitors a full 26 minutes to cross for that five-pointer, which was slightly against the run of play after Sitiveni Sivivatu delicately shipped the ball out to his hooker wide out.
That was the only attacking highlight of the first 40 but the overall moment came when, on two occasions, Italy demolished the All Black scrum. It was quite a sight that pleased captain Sergio Parisse no end.
Many had predicted a strong opening from the home side, who were being cheered on by such names as soccer veterans Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Del Piero.
A single penalty goal from Craig Gower on four minutes due to Wyatt Crockett being penalised at the set-piece got the crowd upright. However, for all their spirit and the leadership of Parisse, Italy were unfortunate to find themselves 3-14 down at the break.
The neutral was predicting a closely-fought opening to this one before the opening of the floodgates when Graham Henry rolled on the likes of Richie McCaw, Andrew Hore, Jimmy Cowan and Mils Muliaina. But that proved not to be the case as it was in fact the hosts who grew as the game wore on – the territorial statistics over the final 40 minutes act as proof, Italy had 60 per cent.
But for all their field position they lacked any threatening ideas under the playmaking nous of Gower, who had an off-day in general play. One would imagine the New Zealand of old to have subsequently made them pay.
Not so, as Luke McAlister missed more than he made from the tee in Milan, with the width of a post summing up the former Sale man's own luck with the boot.
But the centre finally found his range on 44 minutes before Parisse lifted his troops for the final ten minutes. How they responded from being 6-20 behind.
Italy set up camp five metres from the black whitewash and were gunning for a score that would reward the 77,000 spectators who had come out to pack the San Siro.
Wave after wave of attacks from their imperious scrum had Dickinson pressured to award them seven points in what was a fitting finish in this special Test fixture. But Dickinson pooped the party.
Man of the match: Leonardo Ghiraldini was strong during the first period but the overall performance of Sergio Parisse was once again unparalleled. The Paris number eight got the better of opposite number Rodney So'oialo and proved his ever-growing global reputation with an excellent 80 minutes as leader.
Moment of the match: The final eight minutes in Milan summed up the spirit of the Azzurri. Close to ten scrum resets almost gave them a much-needed seven points but it wasn't to be. 80,000 stood to applaud the effort and Nick Mallett will be oh so proud of his pack.
Villain of the match: No one really stands out in either camp.
Pens: Gower 2
For New Zealand:
Pens: McAlister 5
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, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Quintin Geldenhuys, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Ignacio Rouyet, 18 Antonio Pavanello, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Simon Picone, 21 Kristopher Burton, 22 Alberto Sgarbi
New Zealand: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Jason Eaton, 19 Richie McCaw, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Mils Muliaina.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), David Changleng (Scotland)
Television match official: Tim Hayes (Wales)
Assessor: Michel Lamoulie (France)
By Adam Kyriacou