Italy playmaker is ready for the challenge of facing New Zealand

Knowing what is coming your way is the easy part. For Paolo Garbisi and Italy, the challenge is working out how to stop a desperate All Black side. 

The Azzurri will run out onto the pitch in Lyon today with a chance at making history. If they can beat New Zealand, they will become the first Italian side ever to reach the knockout stages of the Men’s Rugby World Cup, while knocking the Kiwis out in the group stages for the first time. 

It is a monumental task, but for a kid who idolised Dan Carter and shaped his game on Test rugby’s most prolific player, this is why is Garbisi first picked up a ball. 

“It’s not only New Zealand, it’s New Zealand with their backs against the wall,” says Garbisi. 

“If they lose, there’s nothing that can save them. We know that they are going to try to smash us, they will come with violence, with pace, with physicality, with rhythm, everything they have got. It’s quite scary and a bit of a nightmare when you think about it.  

“We’re trying to understand how we can manage all those things. We are the underdogs, we have nothing to lose, which wasn’t the case in the first two games. We’re trying to put it all together and put in a good performance.  

“This is the position we wanted to be in before the World Cup, with these two games where we can try to do something. We know that the level will increase a lot and it’s going to be super hard for us but we back our team and we will try to produce a performance that we can proud of.” 

With ten points from a possible ten in wins over Namibia and Uruguay – the latter thanks to a second-half turnaround, Italy find themselves second in Pool A behind hosts France. 

This match against New Zealand is the first of two shots at reaching the quarter-finals, with Les Bleus to follow a week later, also in Lyon. 

It is easy to forget that Garbisi is still only 23. The man who will wear the No 10 jersey against the All Blacks was playing age group rugby when these two sides were due to meet four years ago in Japan – only for Typhoon Hagibis to intervene. 

He has spent time at both fly-half and inside centre in this tournament, with Kieran Crowley trying to find a way to fit all three of Tommaso Allan, Ange Capuozzo and Garbisi in the same backline. For New Zealand, Allan will slot in at full-back, with Capuozzo on the wing. 

That is a set-up that works for Garbisi, whose job will be to ensure that Capuozzo gets as much ball as possible. 

“We need players like Ange, we need the X-factor in our team,” said Paolo Garbisi, who also explained that he prefers playing at fly-half, even if he is comfortable in the No.12 jersey as well. 

“With how good defences are, you need people who are able to beat people one-on-one to create quick ball and put teams under pressure phase after phase. The way he does things, he’s unbelievable.  

“Sometimes I ask myself how he can do what he does. He’s really, really good and with his body size, what he manages is unbelievable. I need to make the most of it because he’s on my team!”  

Paolo Garbisi

Ange Capuozzo in action (Getty Images)

After a breakthrough 2022, in which the Azzurri beat Wales in Cardiff before adding a first ever win over Australia, it was their attacking intent which caught the eye. 

Paolo Garbisi has a game suited to that style, but he has warned that the team will not allow their desire to play with width to stray into recklessness, which has arguably been an issue so far this year. 

“I’m not going to lie, it’s becoming harder and harder (to play an expansive game),” he added.  

“Teams expect us to play from everywhere. So you have to find the balance between using the space when it’s there but not overplaying. Because if you play too much in your own half, it can be dangerous if you concede penalties or drop the ball and get turned over.  

“Once we get that balance, we can be really effective. I think the most important thing is to find the balance the passing game and the kicking game. That is where we need to progress.” 

Italy will go in as underdogs in each of their next two games – a position some might relish, but one that Garbisi wants to get away from. 

Having already been a part of an Italian side that have progressed beyond all recognition, his ambition is to go further. 

Perhaps that should come as little surprise for a player who led Montpellier to their maiden Top 14 title in his first year in France, keeping the Springboks’ World Cup-winning fly-half Handre Pollard out of the side in the process. 

Some might have found keeping a player of that pedigree on the bench daunting, but Garbisi explained how Pollard made it easy. 

He said: “Handre Pollard was probably one of the biggest reasons that I decided to go to Montpellier. I wanted to learn from him, he’s a super good guy, very chilled and happy to help when you need it. It was very useful for me to train with him day in, day out.  

“It wasn’t strange (keeping Pollard out of the side) because he didn’t make it weird for me. The way he was, the way he approached training weeks and even on the human side, he was super cool. The thing itself wasn’t strange.” 

The Paolo Garbisi career to date has been about confounding expectations and launching the renaissance of Italian rugby. That renaissance will accelerate if they can cope with the pace and violence coming their way in Lyon.

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