All Blacks v Italy history remembered

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It wasn't a Test match, but the Italian President's XV was the strongest team they could field.

 

It was a highlight for the players who never expected to have the chance to play the All Blacks. They had only seen them on television and mainly in the Barbarians game of 1973, famous for Gareth Edwards' try.

 

Salvatore Bonetti, who captained the side, said the week leading into the game provided plenty of doubts and worries.

 

"I was wondering: will I be up to it? Will I be able to keep up with the speed of the game and the physicality?

 

"We prepared for the game in Abano, where the New Zealanders were also staying. One evening, when we were taking a stroll after training, we met them. We looked them over, as you do when seeing them up close for the first time.

 

"We were coached by Carwyn James, who had been coach of the winning 1971 British & Irish Lions, and the Llanelli side who beat them in 1972.

 

"That was important because he convinced us that we could play them. He gave us confidence and conviction.

 

"It ended 17-9 for them," he said.

Bonetti had a surprise 30 years later. New Zealander Deon Kingi arrived to play club rugby in Brescia and, one day Kingi's wife said to Bonetti, "I bring you my father's greetings." She explained she was the daughter of former All Blacks centre Bruce Robertson. Robertson had been the All Blacks captain that day.

 

"It was a game I was proud of," he said.

 

Italy wing Nello Francescato has a special connection with the All Blacks. He scored the only try in the 1977 game, and then, in the 12-18 loss to New Zealand in 1979, he scored another.

 

Francescato said in both games, Italy competed on a par with the All Blacks.

 

"They were stronger. They were Martians whom we looked upon as idols, a team against which we had dared not even to think we would have the chance to compete, let alone win.

 

"Yet, we fought hard because we were a good team, and united. We had four or five potential match winners and we were able to play the sort of rugby we enjoyed: with speed, movement in space, good support and the ability to choose what we wanted to do," he said.

 

Francescato said it was not true that Italy didn't have a history of quality play in rugby.

 

He said their record had been distorted over time, and he believed Italian players now did not like to put in the sort of hard work he and his teammates did. He was frustrated with the ball-in-hand drives through 20 phases when a mistake occurred, and the opposition scored anyway.

"We need some intelligence and imagination in our game," he said.

 

Francescato said that playing the All Blacks was like winning an Olympic medal.

 

Ten years later, Italy made their first appearance in New Zealand. They played the opening game of the inaugural Rugby World Cup against the All Blacks.

 

Captain Marzio Innocenti recalled the mood in Auckland in the week before the opening game at Eden Park.

 

"People around Auckland recognised who we were and asked us if we really wanted to be meeting the All Blacks first up?

 

"We prepared as well as we could and we wanted to put on a performance that reflected the honour we felt," he said.

 

He also remembered an International Rugby Board member coming into the Italy dressing room before the game. He turned off the lights and told them, "You are about to be seen by a few million spectators all over the world. Better if you stay a little in the dark to concentrate."

 

One of the Italian players commented that they should be careful someone could be after their wallets.

 

"We laughed a lot for a few seconds but then turned our attention to the game.

 

"Up until 10 minutes into the second half, it was a genuine Test before it turned into a black storm.

 

"I have often wondered why that happened but have never been able to understand the reason," he said.

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