Italy to plug Parisse gap against 'physical' Tonga

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Milan (AFP)

Italy centre Tommaso Benvenuti pledged they will plug the gap left by captain Sergio Parisse's absence when they host "physical" Tonga a week after stunning South Africa for the first time.

Italy will be without influential skipper and No 8 Parisse, banned for three weeks for an incident while playing with French Top 14 side Stade Francais, when they host the south Pacific islanders in Padova.

But Treviso centre Benvenuti said the squad have full faith in his replacement, Andries van Schalkwyk, for Saturday's Test in northern Italy.

"Sergio is an important player, one of the strongest in his position, but we have a competitive squad and confidence in all the players," Benvenuti told media on Thursday.

"We expect a very intense match from a physical point of view. But, just as we did before our previous two matches, we've been studying our opponents carefully."

Although Tonga have beaten Italy only once in four meetings, most of Tutai Kefu's squad ply their trade for some of the top sides in Europe.

Ornel Gega will start his second consecutive November Test after Italy's number one hooker, Leonardo Ghiraldini, suffered an injury in a 68-10 defeat to the All Blacks a fortnight ago.

The Tongans are a notoriously physical side who are expected to match Italy at the scrum, and Gega says the Azzurri have been doing their homework.

"Our focus is totally on Tonga," Gega said on Thursday amid suggestions last week's win had left a few fuzzy heads.

"They are a very physical side, strong in the scrum and many of their guys play in top leagues.

"We want to go out and repeat our result against South Africa, but we will have to stay focused for the whole match. After last week's win, we can't wait to get back into it but we've prepared for this game carefully."

- 'Very long journey' -

After the reality check of their crushing defeat to the All Blacks, Italian rugby fans last week were in seventh heaven.

At the 13th attempt, the Azzurri finally overcame South Africa -- albeit beating a Boks side currently enduring their worst season since returning to international rugby in 1992 from apartheid-induced isolation.

But for Italy coach Conor O'Shea, it's as though last week's historic win never happened.

"We know we've only taken one step on a very long journey," O'Shea said in midweek.

"Our job, mine and the coaches, is to make sure the squad is motivated and competitive for every game, but this can only happen if we keep on developing our objectives. This is what helps create the little situations that make a big difference to the result.

"In the next two or three months the freshest and most important memory will be of how we fared against Tonga, that's why we have to list our work rate and focus on what is ahead of us," he added.

O'Shea had made only one change from last week's starting XV, Van Schalkwyk, who scored one of Italy's two tries in Florence, replaced in the second row by Quintin Geldenhuys.

Parisse's absence prompted O'Shea to bring the big lock back into the fold, this time at No 8.