ROME (Reuters) - To say the draw for the Rugby World Cup pool stage was unkind on Italy would be an understatement.
Reaching the quarter-finals was always going to be a stretch for an Italian side that has never escaped the groups before.
But being paired with champions New Zealand and South Africa, who have won five of the eight previous editions of the tournament between them, has made the task infinitely harder.
Don’t try telling Sergio Parisse that, though. The Azzurri captain is heading to his fifth and final World Cup in Japan in a pragmatic, yet optimistic, mood.
“We aren’t favourites,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “We’re realistic about that, we know there’s a big chance that South Africa and New Zealand will get through.
“But we’re working to make something big and to achieve something big you must do something that you’ve never done before.”
While a World Cup quarter-final spot would be unprecedented for Italy, who also face Namibia and Canada in Pool B, a victory over South Africa would not.
In November 2016, Parisse led his side to their first ever win over the Springboks as they triumphed 20-18 in an autumn Test match in Florence.
The defeat came just a year on from the southern hemisphere powerhouse’s shock defeat by Japan at the 2015 World Cup.
Much has changed since then and the teams who started that day are largely unrecognisable from those that will line up when they meet in Shizuoka on Oct. 4 in their third pool game.
It does, however, offer the 35-year-old a glimmer of hope that the Italians can make their dream a reality.
“Even though it’s going to be another South African team and Italian team from 2016, another context, in some part of their heads they know they can lose against Italy and we know that we can beat South Africa,” he said.
“That is the brilliant thing about the World Cup, sometimes you have teams who make big surprises like Japan did against South Africa.
“We are doing massive work in every single sector of our game,” he added.
“Physically, in our preparation for the games, not just on fitness and rugby but in other little things like nutrition, how we sleep, breathing, everything.
“We are trying to do everything we can to give ourselves every chance to improve. We want to arrive at that game against South Africa saying we’ve done everything we can to make it happen and win the game.
“Maybe we’ll win, maybe not, but in terms of how we prepare we want to finish the World Cup with no regrets.”
Conor O’Shea’s Italy side warmed up for the tournament with heavy losses away to Ireland, France and England and a comfortable home win over Russia.
Those defeats continued a poor run against fellow Six Nations contestants that has seen the Azzurri lose a record 22 consecutive matches in the annual tournament and pick up the wooden spoon for four years in a row.
Parisse will take his World Cup bow this autumn before making the tough call on whether to end his 17-year international career altogether after the tournament.
But while recent results have been disappointing, the skipper is convinced his country will continue to close the gap on their more illustrious rivals after he hangs up his boots.
“There have been plenty of games where we were more than competitive,” he said.
“It’s frustrating because the fantastic thing this group has in the last three or four years with Conor is that the enthusiasm and positivity has never gone down.
“We never give up because we don’t win games. Yes, we’re frustrated and angry, but every single Monday after the weekend the boys wake up and keep working, believing and having the faith in what we do.
“The results are coming. Sometimes we’re unlucky, sometimes we play sides that are better than us. But in terms of what we put on the field, the rugby we play, even during the Six Nations we did great things.
“In every single sport the results are the only thing that count. But for Italy and our history of getting involved in the Six Nations in 2000, how we want to grow into a good rugby nation, we’re still miles away from some of the historic teams like Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
“We’re trying to reduce the gap. I think we’ve shown really good things and sometimes in the last three or four years we’ve deserved to win and didn’t get it. The frustration is when you don’t take these chances.”
Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris