Digby Ioane broke the defence and the heart of the Italians to inspire Australia to a comfortable 32-6 win at North Harbour’s stadium in Auckland.
Italy were brutal and brave for the first 40 minutes and deserved to change ends 6-all, but they lacked the skill and class among their backs to ever be more than courageous.
Australia, physically strong, were the opposite. Their pack was capable and the backs electric. None more so than Ioane, who broke the line at will, set up Australia’s opening try in the 52nd minute and scored one of his own to put Australia in charge.
Wallabies captain James Horwill was named man of the match, but the best forward on display was Italy’s captain Sergio Parisse. How the French-based Italian, who was born in Argentina, must wish he played for a New Zealand, South Africa or Australia. He is a one-man class act among a bunch of honest toilers and plodders.
Parisse aside there wasn’t any threat from the Italians, and aside from one pulverizing scrum coach Nick Mallett would have expected greater forward dominance.
Australia’s pack was sound enough and tighhead Ben Alexander proved more than a capable opponent for the highly rated Italian loosehead Andrea Lo Cicero.
Alexander is the most underrated tighthead in the game and come the end of this World Cup he may yet be acknowledged as the best in the business.
There is no doubting the Wallabies backs are the best. They play with as much composure as they did enthusiasm and they also play with a greater intelligence than a back division like New Zealand’s.
Halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper, as a combination, have no equal at this tournament and Ioane is running red hot.
James O’Connor’s introduction for the last 30 minutes paid immediate try-scoring dividends and Australia looked better on attack with Ashley Adam Cooper moving into the centres in place of the more defensively orientated Anthony Faingaa.
There is a lot of respect within the Wallabies camp for the Italians and the Australian forwards were prepared to do the honest toil in the first 40 minutes. The backs were also prepared to play percentages and Cooper, generally, controlled the game well.
The skill level of the Wallabies backs cannot be overstated and even in difficult and wet conditions each player backed his hands and offloading ability.
The key to stopping Australia is to do so at the gain line. Win the collisions against Australia, as the All Blacks did in the Tri Nations match in Auckland a month ago, and you win the match. Allow their forwards marginal ascendancy and it is game to Australia.
Italy, for the first half, met the Australians at the gain line and that limited the back division threat, but once Australia’s forwards broke the first tackle and managed to create a mismatch of backs running on forwards the result was inevitable.
Cooper, with front foot ball, played conductor and his delayed short pass will cause better defences problems. Kurtely Beale, from fullback, and Ioane are game breakers and Ioane opened up the match as he did the Super Rugby final a few months back.
It needed something special from Australia to break the deadlock and Ioane provided it with a break that set up Ben Alexander’s opening score. The Italian challenge ended with Ioane’s magical moment and a less proud side would have got blown away in the final 20 minutes.
The Italians, given their character, refused to allow Australia’s backs to put on an exhibition and Parisse was stubborn till the end. The captain deserved to score and should have from a pushover effort in the 79th minute. He botched his control of the ball, but that was his only mistake on a day when the kudos went to his Australian opposite Horwill.
Robbie Deans’s decision to appoint Horwill as captain a fortnight before the World Cup has proved inspirational and he again led by example and seemingly without fear.
Horwill likes the physicality of the contest and so does the rest of his pack. Physicality has always been a vulnerability of Australian packs. In this side it is a strength. Australia, on week one, look the team to beat at the World Cup with their only weakness being a lack of depth in playing numbers.
If they lose a few players they will be in trouble, but if the match 22 stays together for the duration of the tournament it is the opposition who will be in trouble.
By Mark Keohane at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland