The All Blacks. Remember them?
The Rugby World Cup's discounted three-time champions, who suffered their first ever pool loss then their first ever tournament red card?
In the two weeks since New Zealand's last game, Ireland has underlined its top dog status thanks to a South Africa goalkicking malfunction, France captain Antoine Dupont had his face broken, and Australia copped historic defeats to Fiji and Wales and looks set not to make the quarterfinals for the first time.
New Zealand reappears on Friday in Lyon against an Italy side that has never beaten the All Blacks but thinks it smells blood in the water amidst a northern hemisphere renaissance.
NEW ZEALAND vs. ITALY (New Zealand leads 15-0 overall, 5-0 in RWC)
The All Blacks are in an unfamiliar must-win scenario in the pool stage after the opening defeat to host France.
To qualify for the quarterfinals they can't take Italy lightly, which can't be guaranteed following all of the unwelcome results under the reign of coach Ian Foster (Biggest defeat, first loss to Argentina, home series loss to Ireland, etc).
Only prop Ethan de Groot, suspended for his red card against Namibia, was unavailable for selection after a timely bye week in Bordeaux cleared up the All Blacks' injury list.
Foster has wasted no time slotting four previously injured first-choice players into the matchday 23. All four will make their first appearances in this Rugby World Cup.
Flanker Shannon Frizell, the star of the Rugby Championship sweep, was starting with Jordie Barrett, who will firm up the midfield against Italy's own rated pair.
Squad captain Sam Cane and Tyrel Lomax will complete their rehabs from respective back and thigh injuries with minutes off the bench.
They have two pool games — the other against Uruguay — to get them up to speed and sharpen their overall game to prepare for a hoped-for quarterfinal, probably against Ireland.
The intensity of the Ireland-South Africa clash set the standard for All Blacks defense coach Scott McLeod. Of the players' reaction, he said, “There is a buzz, that excites them, that's the level they want to play at.”
New Zealand used the bye week not just to heal but also to up the intensity in training, which led to some tempers flaring among the forwards, where the All Blacks have been punished by opponents and referees recently.
The starting pack doesn't include lock Sam Whitelock, who will have to come off the bench to set a new All Blacks test caps record of 149 and leave behind Richie McCaw.
Italy has talked up offering a bolder challenge on the back of a two-year improvement, but its pacier play also suits New Zealand.
“Hopefully in trying to win a game, we can express ourselves,” Jordie Barrett said. “We got a harsh lesson against France, an even harsher one against South Africa a month or so ago. But we've done a lot of good work in the past few weeks and we believe in what we are trying to do. Hopefully we can see a bit of that on Friday.”
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby
Foster Niumata, The Associated Press