Preview: Australia v Italy

Date published: September 9 2011

The Wallabies will start as overwhelming favourites when they open their World Cup campaign against Italy on Sunday.

The Wallabies will start as overwhelming favourites when they open their World Cup campaign against Italy at North Harbour Stadium on Sunday.

Anyone doubting Australia's credentials needs only to look back at one night in Brisbane two weeks ago when the Wallabies carved up New Zealand's best with one of the finest first-half displays of rugby that anyone will ever see.

The end result was a Tri-Nations title – their first in a decade – and one could argue that they are the form team going into this World Cup.

A slip-up at home to Samoa in July may have been the reminder the Wallabies needed that they cannot take anyone for granted which spells trouble for the Azzurri.

Even Italy coach Nick Mallett admitted his side have been handed the toughest opening assignment of any team at the World Cup against the Tri-Nations champions.

While Mallett's side picked up an outstanding win over France in this year's Six Nations, they have yet to taste victory against Australia. Under the guidance of Mallett, Italy have played the Wallabies four times in four years and every single time they've surrendered 30 points against the men from Down Under.

The Wallabies pose arguably the most exciting back-line in the global game with the brilliance of half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper providing the ammunition for the likes of Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane, and on paper it looks relatively plain sailing with the second-ranked Australians unbeaten in all their 13 previous encounters against the Azzurri.

However, be that as it may, the Wallabies won't make the same mistake twice by under-estimating their opposition as they chase a record third Webb Ellis Cup.

It will be the first World Cup encounter between the two nations but Australia coach Robbie Deans is cautioning against taking liberties with Italy, who boast one of world rugby's most technically accomplished forward packs.

“We have a lot of respect for the Italian side. I've watched them play some great rugby and I've watched them develop,” Deans said.

“I watched it live earlier in the year when they should have tipped over Ireland, they probably should have beaten Wales and they did beat France, and we have struggled ourselves against them in recent times.”

The Italians have yet to get past the pool stages in seven previous World Cups, but could indeed be a surprise quarter-finalist even if they taste defeat against the Wallabies this weekend as they can still qualify with a win over Ireland.

Sunday's game will go a long way in determining whether Italy indeed have the potential to get that far.

Ones to watch:

For Australia: While there has been much pre-match focus on the battle in the forwards, keep an eye on rising centre Pat McCabe in the Wallabies midfield. McCabe's fearless direct running style emboldened coach Robbie Deans to prefer him at inside centre ahead of discarded Matt Giteau. And so far, he hasn't made Deans regret his decision.

For Italy: It's hard to look anywhere else besides their pack where Italy's pillar of strength in the form of captain and number eight Sergio Parisse – described as the world's best in his position – will once again be relied upon to produce the goods.

Head to head: Australia are up against renowned scrummagers and will need to dig their heels deep when Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu lock horns in the front row with Martin Castrogiovanni, Fabio Ongaro and Andrea Lo Cicero. Failure to provide a stable platform and front-foot ball for the Wallabies' talented backline is only ever a collapsed scrum away.

Recent results:
2010: Australia won Italy 32-14 in Florence
2009: Australia won 34-12 in Melbourne
2009: Australia won 31-8 in Canberra
2008: Australia won 30-20 in Padova
2006: Australia won 25-18 in Rome
2005: Australia won 69-21 in Melbourne
2002: Australia won 34-3 in Genova
1996: Australia won 40-18 in Padova
1994: Australia won 20-7 in Melbourne
1994: Australia won 23-20 in Brisbane

Prediction: On their day, the two-time World Cup winners can be awesome and they will rightly go into Sunday's opener the hot favourites. Whilst Italy won't go down without a fight, we predict one-way traffic in the North Shore. Australia by 20!

The teams:
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Cornelius Van Zyl, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Lorenzo Cittadini, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Paul Derbyshire, 20 Edoardo Gori, 21 Riccardo Bocchino, 22 Luke McLean.

Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Anthony Fainga'a, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 David Pocock, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Dan Vickerman, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Sekope Kepu.
Replacements: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 James Slipper, 18 Rob Simmons, 19 Ben McCalman, 20 Scott Higginbotham, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 James O'Connor.

Date: Sunday, September 11
Venue: North Harbour Stadium, North Shore (Auckland)
Kick-off: 15:30 (03:30 GMT)
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland))
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Chris Pollock (New Zealand)