TOBY ROBSON IN CARDIFF
From Bulgari watches, classic cars and the Colosseum to the charms of Cardiff and Welsh rugby's latest crisis.
There is little doubt the All Blacks end of year tour has entered a new phase.
The squad flew out of Rome today with injury concerns over Beauden
Barrett (ribs), Keven Mealamu (calf), Aaron Smith (knee) and Aaron
Barrett is the most pressing and be will have x-rays to ascertain
the damage done during the first half of Sunday's 42-10 win over Italy.
But coach Steve Hansen is confident only utility Tamati Ellison will be unavailable for selection this week.
Wales' woeful run of five losses, the latest against Samoa, has
raised questions over the status of the third tour match being the first
of two "big tests" for the All Blacks, but the build up will definitely
be a change of pace.
In Rome the All Blacks were treated like rugby royalty.
Midweek the players dined as guests at the home of Nicola Bulgari
where they were given a look at the collection of the 350 classic cars
in his basement.
Several players later took one of the cars for a spin during a sponsor's commitment.
Italy's economy might be a wreck with students marching around the
Colosseum to protest against the lack of jobs this week, but there is
enormous wealth in the luxury goods market.
Bulgari recently released a limited run of 250 All Blacks watches
which retailed at around 12,000 Euros (approximately NZD$18,800) each.
They sold out so fast another 250 were quickly produced and the New
Zealand Rugby Union's watch maker, they signed on as official partners
for two-years back in March, made sure they milked the All Blacks visit
for all it was worth.
The watches were advertised heavily in Rome's major papers on match
day and there is little doubt the NZRU sees further potential to push
their brand in Italy.
When the All Blacks played in Milan two years ago nearly 81,000 crammed into San Siro Stadium in the fashion capital.
But last time the All Blacks visited Rome, in 2004, they could only pull 27,000 at Stadio Flaminio.
Eight years on Stadio Olimpico's 80,000 seats sold out and the merchandisers around the complex could barely keep up.
Ma'a Nonu was stopped wherever he went and instantly recognised from the moment he arrived.
No wonder NZRU chief executive Steve Tew was in town meeting with
representatives of a company recently acquired by Louis Vuitton.
And no wonder Hansen, captain Kieran Read and the other players
talked up the test, arguably beyond its station, at the after-match.
That said it was a great occasion, if not a perfect All Blacks
performance, and the home side produced a display their fans could be
proud of before wilting in the final 15 minutes.
It gave Hansen a chance to see unproven players like Dane Coles,
Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Beauden Barrett under pressure in front of a
All three passed with flying colours, while Aaron Cruden got
valuable game time at pivot, but, like a number of others, looked short
on recent match play.
Hansen expects everyone to be available for selection of what he's indicated will be his top 23.
Mealamu had "history" with his calf, so would be monitored, but Ben
Smith's broken cheek bone was no longer an issue and Israel Dagg
(bruised buttocks) was good to go and Smith and Cruden were unlikely to
be an issue.
Meanwhile there is no movement on a possible IRB review of Adam Thomson's one-week ban for trampling against Scotland.