In a Rugby World Cup group containing three-time champion New Zealand and two-time winner South Africa, the realistic option for the other teams is third place.
A win for Italy over Canada on Thursday at Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium would go some way to securing that, given the Italians beat Namibia 47-22 last Sunday. Although Conor O’Shea’s squad scored seven tries, the general view was that Italy needs to play “more accurately and with more discipline in our structure,” according to backrower Braam Steyn.
Still, O’Shea was confident enough to make 10 changes to his starting lineup, with Steyn and flyhalf Flyhalf Tommaso Allan among the five keeping their spots.
“I have confidence in all our players — all our players are worth a place in the team,” O’Shea said. “I am sure, as you will see, (that) Thursday is much better in how we execute our play.”
Allan will be joined by English-born scrumhalf Callum Braley in Italy’s 13th halves pairing since the 2015 World Cup.
Veteran backrower Sergio Parisse, one of only three players to feature in five World Cups, has been rested even though he wanted to make his 142nd test appearance and move into second place outright on the all-time list behind New Zealand’s Richie McCaw.
So New Zealand-born Dean Budd will lead the team in Parisse’s absence.
“To captain my country in a World Cup is the best moment of my career,” said Budd, who has shaved off his beard because of the intense humidity in Japan. “I hope I’m not like Samson in the Bible. I hope I don’t lose my power,” he said, joking. “It was just hot. There was not any other reason.”
Budd is joined in the second row by David Sisi, the first German-born player to contest a Rugby World Cup. He was born at the British Military Hospital in Rinteln, a small town of 27,000 people in the Lower Saxony region, and qualifies through his paternal grandparents.
Budd predicts that Italy’s forwards will have their work cut out against a proud Canada pack.
“They are massively physical. Those first scrums and first contacts and driving mauls will be interesting,” Budd said. “We know we have to match them or it will be a long day at the office.”
O’Shea considers Canada wingers Jeff Hassler and DTH Van Der Merwe — who has a career six World Cup tries — as big threats.
They’re “Players with the ‘X’ factor,” he said, “and they will cause us problems if we let them.”
Canada’s players have waited a long time for their first World Cup match — which comes six days after the tournament started.
But the time has not been wasted sitting around hotel lobbies or playing on smart photos or other devices.
For Canada’s burly players don’t just bury their heads into tackles, they bury them into books and have formed a book-sharing club.
“They’re different to a lot of rugby players I’ve coached,” said coach Kingsley Jones, a former Wales international. “It’s a really good thing. These guys’ bodies are getting taxed and they get a lot of downtime. It could lead to all sorts of wastes of time. Reading is a fantastic way to learn and rest at the same time.”
So in an increasingly virtual era, where social networks take up so much of people’s time, these players prefer to sit and hear the crispy sound of page books turning over.
And their book-swapping group ensures the most popular titles — rather than memes or gifs — get shared.
“Every bus ride, every break, it would be hard not to find at least one guy with his nose in a book,” centre Ben LeSage said. “It’s a like-minded group of individuals. A lot of us who enjoy the same things, and that’s probably why we click so well.”
Even the most avid science fiction readers would find it hard to believe Canada can qualify for the knockout stage, at the expense of either the All Blacks of the Springboks.
But beating Italy is a realistic goal.
Prop Hubert Buydens and winger DTH Van Der Merwe are both starting, and both were involved eight years ago when Canada beat Tonga 25-20 for its previous World Cup win.
Coach Kingsley Jones kept 11 of the 15 who played in the 20-15 loss to the United States earlier this month.
Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Michele Campagnaro, Jayden Hayward, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley; Braam Steyn, Jake Polledri, Sebastian Negri, Dean Budd (captain), David Sisi, Simone Ferrari, Luca Bigi, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Federico Zani, Nicola Quaglio, Marco Riccioni, Federico Ruzza, Maxime Mbandà, Guglielmo Palazzani, Carlo Canna, Mattia Bellini.
Canada: Patrick Parfrey, Jeff Hassler, Ben Lesage, Nick Blevins, DTH Van Der Merwe, Peter Nelson, Gordon McRorie; Tyler Ardron (capt.), Lucas Rumball, Michael Sheppard, Josh Larsen, Conor Keys, Matt Tierney, Eric Howard, Hubert Buydens.
Reserves: Benoit Piffero, Djustice Duru-Sears, Jake Ilnicki, Luke Campbell, Matt Heaton, Jamie Mackenzie, Ciaran Hearn, Andrew Coe.