Rugby World Cup: Italy preparing to be 'bullied' by All Blacks in crucial pool encounter

Italy coach Kieran Crowley has raised eyebrows with his choice of words to describe the assault he expects from the All Blacks in their pivotal World Cup pool clash at Lyon.

After losing to France in their tournament opener - their first-ever pool loss at a World Cup - New Zealand must maintain their unbeaten record against the 11th-ranked Italians to progress to the quarter-finals and a likely meeting with world No.1 Ireland.

While the 'Azzurri' have never beaten the All Blacks in 15 previous meetings, losing by an average of 50 points, both Crowley and counterpart Ian Foster insist past records mean nothing at this juncture.

Italian coach Kieran Crowley and All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
Italian coach Kieran Crowley and All Blacks coach Ian Foster. Photo credit: Newshub

That's something Foster - in particular - should appreciate, after falling victim to history too many times during his four-year tenure, but Crowley's prediction of the battle to come has almost caused an international incident over a subtle difference in terminology.

"We're under no illusions over what's coming," he stated. "They're going to come at us, they're going to be aggressive, they're going to be intimidating... they'll try to bully us, so we know what's coming.

"We have to embrace that challenge. I think this group of 33 players we have here have really matured over the last 18 months and have a lot more confidence in their ability.

"They have some courage, they have no fear. If that's going to be good enough, we'll have to wait and see, because we know it will be one hell of a battle, but we're really looking forward to it."  

Foster was later asked how he felt about the Italians describing the All Blacks as "bullies", not quite the precise paraphrasing.

"What was the Italian word they used?" he asked. "I haven't heard the word 'bullies' from the Italians.

"I'm happy to answer the question, I just want to check it's right."

Assured of the exact phraseology, Foster continued: "Well, that's rugby, everyone's trying to do that.

"They'll be trying to do that to us, it's a physical game. It's not a lack of respect from anyone, but both teams know there's a lot at stake.

"This was always a game we knew we had to get really excited about and play well in. Regardless of what happened in round one, we knew this was always a game that we had to go out and perform well, building into where we want to be later on, but we also knew this was a game we had to play well and win."

The provocative question was almost a 'lost in translation' moment, except Crowley is a true blue Kiwi himself, born in the Taranaki town of Kaponga, and attended two World Cup with the All Blacks, including the inaugural 1987 winners.

He and Foster would have stared each other down across the field on many occasions for their respective provinces.

While pre-game banter is often full of platitudes and respect for the opposition, regardless of their previous lopsided relationship, the All Blacks head coach warns Italy aren't to be taken lightly. 

"The last two years, we've seen a lot of growth in their game," he said. "I think I made the point after the Six Nations, I thought they were one of the highlights - the way they played and the competitiveness of all their games - so we're expecting a tough battle."

Join Newshub at 8am Saturday for live updates of the All Blacks v Italy World Cup pool clash