Italy should win by more than 10 points
Italy coach Jacques Brunel insists his players' minds are not on New Zealand and Australia as they begin their year-end Test series against Pacific Islanders Tonga on Saturday.
The Azzurri host the All Blacks at Rome's Olympic stadium on November 17 before hosting Australia in Florence on November 24.
But Brunel said Thursday the priority is for Italy to maintain the good form they showed in a recent tour of north America when they meet Tonga in Brescia on Saturday.
"We've been training with the best possible squad but we're not thinking about the two games we have coming up later" against New Zealand and Australia, Brunel said.
"We've won three of our last four games and our goal is to keep the momentum going. The only game I'm thinking about is Tonga, we're not thinking about what comes later."
This year's year-end series has been given an added dimension as it will decide the seedings for next month's draw for the 20125 World Cup in England.
And while that will be an incentive for both teams, Italy will start Saturday's match, only the teams' fourth meeting, as firm favourites.
Tonga's last victory over Italy was a 28-25 win in Leicester during the 1999 World Cup. The Azzurri have since made amends with a 36-10 win in the 2003 World Cup and a 48-0 rout in Prato, Italy in 2005.
After Saturday's game Tonga head coach Mana 'Otai will lead his side against the United States, Scotland and English club Newcastle Falcons.
Although they have been in Brescia training this week, Mana had little time in which to trim his Sea Eagles squad during a three-day training camp in Gruissan, France.
"We tried to concentrate on giving the players the tools, patterns and plays they will need during the tour without overloading them during the two-and-a-half days we had to work with," said Mana.
Despite his claims, meanwhile, Brunel appears to have one eye on the All Blacks and Wallabies tests having left some established players on the bench.
While Italy wing Mirco Bergamasco is sidelined with injury, prop Martin Castrogiovanni will start from the bench as Lorenzo Cittadini is handed a rare start in his hometown thanks to his early season form.
"Both are international level props but Cittadini has played more at this early stage of the season than Castrogiovanni and in his hometown I think Lorenzo deserves the chance to start the game," said Brunel.
"Cittadini has already played in the position at the Six Nations when Castrogiovanni was injured and in recent weeks Castro has not played much with the [Leicester] Tigers."
Veteran No.8 Sergio Parisse will start and full back Andrea Masi makes his return having missed the summer tour of north America.
"Andrea is in great physical condition, his confidence is flying and I think he will make a good contribution," said Brunel.
South African-born Tobias Botes comes in at scrumhalf after a mediocre Six Nations tournament which he exited with an elbow injury against Scotland.
Making his debut Saturday is Tommaso Iannone, who forced wing Giovanbattista Venditti on to the bench thanks to some strong performances for Treviso and the absence of Bergamasco.
"The choice was between Iannone and Venditti, given the unavailability of Mirco Bergamasco," added Brunel.
"But he's not such a surprise inclusion. He has been strong for Treviso and also impressive in training.
"Either we wait, or we get him in there quickly, and we chose the latter option."
Players to watch:
For Italy: Not that you need to pay special attention, but Azzurri captain Sergio Parisse is always visible. Then there is Andrea Masi at fullback, who needs to be both a defensive rock against the hard-running Pacific islanders and an attacking force. Kristopher Burton gets another chance to cement his place at flyhalf - one of the problematic positions for Italy.
For Tonga: Taniela Moa, in his new role as captain, will be crucial to the Tongan cause. Their set pieces may not always be the best, but hard-running loose forwards Viliami Ma'afu, Sione Vaiomo'unga and Sitiveni Mafi will keep the Italian defenders busy. Of course there is also prop Alisona Taumalolo, always a joy to watch with the ball in hand.
Head to head: It will be interesting to observe the different styles of flyhalves Kristopher Burton (Italy) and Fangatapu 'Apikotoa (Tonga). The big Italian front row of Lorenzo Cittadini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Lo Cicero would be keen to stamp their authority on Tongan rivals Halani 'Aulika, Elvis Taione and Alisona Taumalolo - and lay the platform for a good win.
2005: Italy won 48-0, Prato
2003: Italy won 36-12, Canberra (World Cup pool match)
1999: Tonga won 28-25, Leicester (World Cup pool match)
Prediction: Any Pacific Island team is dangerous if you allow them to run wild. However, the conditions won't be favourable to the visitors. The key for Italy would be to keep it tight and structured - then they should win by more than 10 points.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Tommaso Iannone, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Simone Favaro, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Giovanbattista Venditti.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 13 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 12 Sione Piukala, 11 Viliami Helu, 10 Fangatapu 'Apikotoa, 9 Taniela Moa (captain), 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Sione Vaiomo'unga, 6 Sitiveni Mafi, 5 Tukulua Lokotui, 4 Joe Tu'ineau, 3 Halani 'Aulika, 2 Elvis Taione, 1 Alisona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Ilaisa Ma'asi, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Hale T-Pole, 19 Paula Kaho, 20 Samisoni Fisilau, 21 Alipate Fatafehi, 22 Viliame 'longi, 23 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Date: Saturday, November 10
Venue: Stadio M. Riggamonti, Brescia
Kick-off: 15.00 (14.00 GMT)
Expected weather: It will start raining in the morning and get heavier throughout the day. High of 12°C and a low of 9°C
Referee: Greg Garner (England)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
AFP & rugby365