Lots to do: Italy still plotting World Cup pool escape

Captain Sergio Parisse is the fulcrum of the Italy team (AFP Photo/Bertrand GUAY)

Milan (AFP) - Conor O'Shea's Italy face a herculean task to avoid another early Rugby World Cup flop heading into a tough Pool B that includes reigning champions New Zealand and South Africa.

Italy, who have never reached a World Cup quarter-final -- the only Six Nations side to have failed to do so, will play the All Blacks and two-time former winners the Springboks after meeting Namibia and Canada.

The 13th-ranked Italians can be expected to win their opening two matches against 23rd-ranked Namibia and Canada, two places above the Africans.

But unless they can pull off a huge shock over either of the former world champions, as Japan did against South Africa four years ago, then a ninth consecutive pool exit looks likely.

"We want to make history and actually get results for ourselves," insists O'Shea, who guided Italy to a historic win over South Africa in November 2016, shortly after he took over.

But the Springboks have moved on since then under coach Rassie Erasmus, and Italy's statistics are not good.

The Italians have not won a match in three years in the Six Nations - a run of 22 consecutive defeats -- despite being more competitive in this year's edition.

The road to Japan has been fraught, with World Cup warm-up losses in Ireland (29-10) and France (47-19), either side of a big home win over Russia.

The French defeat was described as "a slap in the face" and "wake up call" by Italy lock Dean Budd and a massive trip awaits against Eddie Jones' England in Newcastle on Friday.

"(Against France) we faced a team similar to South Africa from a physical point of view," said O'Shea.

"It's a defeat that must help us understand where to continue working to achieve the goals we have set for the World Cup."

- 'Play our cards' -

Iconic captain Sergio Parisse, and fellow veteran Leonardo Ghiraldini, back from a cruciate ligament injury, will lead the Azzurri in a largely youthful squad with 23 tournament debutants.

"The World Cup was not today (against France) and it will not be in Newcastle next Friday, but from September 22 against Namibia," said 140-times capped Parisse before his fourth world tournament.

"We certainly suffered in physical duels, and we weren't as good at exploiting key moments when when we had the advantage.

"But we have to learn from this, and then go and play our cards at the World Cup."

Italy arrive in Japan on September 8 and kick off their campaign against Namibia in Osaka on September 22.

"There's lots still to do, lots of changes still need to be made to allow us to fulfil our potential, but boy we have a good group of players," said former Ireland full-back O'Shea.

"This last year for me has been the turning point for Italian rugby.

"You can see the depth and competition in so many positions and we know where the young players are coming up behind."

Italy's young guns include full-back Matteo Minozzi, back after an anterior cruciate ligament injury ruled him out of this year's Six Nations, along with wing Mattia Bellini and England-born flanker Jake Polledri, who both scored tries against France.