Italy kick off their end-of year campaign when they take on the world champions, New Zealand, in Rome on Saturday.
The Azzurri face a daunting task as the All Blacks will be keen to return to their winning ways after suffering a shock 40-29 defeat to Ireland in Chicago last weekend.
That was Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks and Italy are in a similar position, as the men from the Emerald were in that encounter, as they too have not beaten the All Blacks in 12 previous encounters over the last 29 years.
With matches against South Africa and Tonga lying in wait, Azzurri head coach Conor O’Shea knows the importance of delivering a competitive showing against the three-time World Cup winners.
“I’m excited to see this Italian side play against the best side in the world, then we will have a really good judge – before the two other Tests -,” he told the BBC.
“I’ve talked to some of the more experienced players – Sergio Parisse, Simone Favaro, Leo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni – they want to win now and leave a mark on the future of Italian rugby.
“We are going to improve every game, learn every game, and get better every game.”
“Molto a fare, molto a fatto – so much done and so much to do – but it’s exciting.”
The All Blacks, meanwhile, are licking their wounds after that defeat to Ireland but such is the depth in the world champions’ ranks that their head coach, Steve Hansen, has made 12 changes to his starting line-up but they still have numerous attacking threats across the park.
Hansen highlighted the importance of the match and said he expects a much improved performance from his charges.
“Whilst we have made a number of changes, as we indicated, we will be looking for a massive improvement in our performance from last weekend,” he said.
“Italy will bring their own unique flavour to the game. They have a big, strong forward pack and some really exciting backs. They will look to drive their maul and be as disruptive as possible.
“Therefore, we will have to be clinical and effective in all aspects of our game, starting with our set piece. We are also expecting to see an improvement in our kicking game.”
Players to watch:
For Italy: If the Azzurri want to make an impact much will depend on the performance of their captain, Sergio Parisse. At the age of 33, the Stade Français man is in the twighlight of his career but, when on song, he’s still one of the world’s leading players in his position and his creativity on attack will have to be at its best if Italy want to run the All Blacks close.
For New Zealand: With Kieran Read being rested, Sam Cane leads his country for only the second time and he will be keen to prove that he can do well in the leadership role. As the captain, he’s decision-making will have to be spot on and it will be interesting to see how the captaincy affects his general play as he is involved in a three-way battle with Ardie Savea and Matt Todd to wear the All Blacks’ number seven jersey in their last two Tests of the year, against Ireland in Dublin and France in Paris.
Head-to-head: The battle between the two fly-halves will be crucial as both are keen to make an impression to their respective coaches. For the All Blacks, Aaron Cruden needs to deliver a commanding performance as he has been usurped in the All Blacks pivot position by Beauden Barrett this year. Meanwhile, Azzurri number 10 Carlo Canna is a relative novice at Test level having played just 12 Tests after making his debut for his country in 2015. An assured display should cement his place in his country’s starting line-up.
2012: New Zealand won 42-10 in Rome
2009: New Zealand won 20-6 in Milan
2009: New Zealand won 27-6 in Christchurch
2007: New Zealand won 76-14 in Marsellie (RWC)
2004: New Zealand won 59-10 in Rome
2003: New Zealand won 70-7 in Melbourne (RWC)
2002: New Zealand won 64-10 in Hamilton
2000: New Zealand won 56-19 in Genoa
1999: New Zealand won 101-3 in Huddersfield (RWC)
1995: New Zealand won 70-6 in Bologna
1991: New Zealand won 31-21 in Leicester (RWC)
1987: New Zealand won 70-6 in Auckland (RWC)
Prediction: Although this is not the world champions’ first-choice run-on side, they should have little trouble against their hosts. New Zealand to win by 18 points.
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Giulio Bisegni, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Giorgio Bronzini, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Maxime Mbanda, 5 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Ornel Gega, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 George Biagi, 20 Francesco Minto, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Tommaso Boni
New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Matt Todd, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rieko Ioane
Date: Saturday, November 12
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 15:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Alex Ruiz (France), Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)