It's probably fair to say that whatever good work Robbie Deans and his Australian team has done in Italy this week as far as raising the profile of the game goes, Australians are not the flavour of the month in the rugby world at the moment.
One man, and one man alone, is responsible for that: Australian CEO John O'Neill. On and on and on he wibbles, spewing forth all manner of drivel on all manner of perceived injustices prevalent in the modern game. The laws are wrong, the referees are wrong, and you wouldn't be at all surprised if, after this match which will be played in a soccer stadium, he rocks up to some presser somewhere and begins moaning about the length of the grass or the proximity of the athletics track around the pitch or something. Perhaps he'll complain to the IRB again and give us all a really good hard laugh.
His finest hour came this week when, in another plea to have the IRB introduce the cheats' charter - sorry, the sanctions ELV - all over the world so Australians can leave the scrum behind and concentrate on playing to the best of their rugby league capabilities, he uttered the following words: "The two semi-finals and final of the 2007 World Cup were terrible games of rugby. People may not like hearing that but it needs to be said."
He might have been saying differently had Australia been involved. That needs to be said too. Rugby is already struggling to cope with the new laws, it does not need some one-eyed crusader stirring up trouble about them wherever he dares to tread. Sadly, he seems to have whipped up a fair amount of support at home. Perhaps this November will serve to convince him and his supporters that the game under the global ELVs is in fine health and needs no changing.
O'Neill is travelling with the Australian team on this November tour, presumably in one more attempt to convince all the northern unions that free-kicks are wonderful and mauls and scrums are rubbish. With all this now said, we are hoping we can ignore him for the duration.
The build-up to the game, which is being played in Padova's Stadio Euganeo, a 32,000 arena normally reserved for the soccer team, took an odd turn early in the week after the Italian Rugby Federation asked the soccer club to help organise the logistics, like bars and snacks in the stadium and so forth. It later transpired that the soccer club had asked for volunteers, and that many of them came from the soccer club's 'Ultras', a hardcore group not always renowned for the love of purely watching sport!
The kerfuffle died down quickly however, and rugby has ruled the little eastern town which is just down the road from Venice. Players are up on billboards, the azure colour is more and more prevalent, even companies are beginning to find that using rugby players as advertising - promoting rugby's values of graft and honesty - is paying off. Italy's rugby culture is swelling, and one of the world's biggest name teams is arriving at just the right time.
An even better time would, of course, be when Italy were ready to notch a win, but that is probably not the case. The last time these two met, Australia only nicked a late win courtesy of a Stirling Mortlock try. Since then, Italy have got stuck in third gear as the quest for a natural fly-half continues fruitlessly, while Australia have re-vamped and re-built but are still searching for a result that truly announces them as a world power in rugby again.
This game should go similarly to that game in Rome two years ago. Italy's pack should make mincemeat of their opposition; the Azzurri eight is a fearsome unit, right up among the top three or four in the world, and so the ball will go firmly up jumpers in the tight, or up in the air when it gets out of the tight. Points will come from penalties, not absolutely riveting to watch, but deserved on the basis of talent and work to all spectators bar O'Neill.
Australia would do well to keep the ball well away from their end of the field and be very very patient in their build-up. Italy's only two really world class backs are full-back Andrea Masi and centre Gonzalo Canale, the rest are there for the Wallabies to run rings round. But they must work themselves into the space (not quite O'Neill's game), rather than just fling it around as much as possible (very much O'Neill's game) before they can reap the benefits of their extra potency.
Reap them they will, despite the enthusiasm of the Italian defence in tight and loose. It'll be another raucous Italian crowd, another foundation-quivering rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani, and another phenomenal effort, but sadly, another valiant defeat. Ghiraldini is right though, it's only a matter of time before Italy do get a big win, and the big day is not far away at all.
Ones to watch:
For Italy: Sergio Parisse, in our humble opinion, ought to be this year's IRB Player of the Year. Yes, the others may have shined on more occasions, but Parisse's heroics in a team frequently on the wrong end of the scoreline are always a wonder to behold. He has all necessary number eight talents, and his chip and chase capabilities and handling skills have been on show on many an occasion at Stade FranÃ§ais this season. Can he light up Padova once more?
For Australia: Berrick Barnes has plenty to prove now he is back from injury. He'll be tasked with ensuring the Wallabies stay honest in their game-plan and keeping things ticking over if the pack begins to buckle.
Head to head: The front row is still the area where Australia just can't seem to satisfy anyone, and Italy's is one of the best in the business. It's all very well having the battle sewn up out wide, but that's no use if you can't get the ball. Can Italy's beef snuff out the Wallaby spark? We'll know after the first few scrums.
2006 Australia won 25-18 at Stadio Flaminio
2005 Australia 69-21 at Telstra Dome
2002 Australia won 34-3 at Stadio Marassi
1996 Australia won 40-18 at Stadio Plebiscito
1994 Australia won 20-7 at Olympic Park
1994 Australia won 23-20 at Ballymore
1988 Australia won 55-6 at Stadio Flaminio
1986 Australia won 39-18 at Ballymore
1983 Australia won 29-7 at Stadio Mario Battaglini
Prediction: As Leonardo Ghiraldini said on Thursday, Italy are due a big win soon. It could be this one, against a less than full strength Australia team, but in the final reckoning Australia still have a little too much spark to let it go. Italy valiant in defeat once more and Australia to win by six.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Andrea Marcato, 9 Pablo Canavosio, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini.