The reset season following the World Cup in Japan was supposed to be the one that brought Australian rugby competitively closer to our Kiwi rivals.
San Siro. Or, Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, if you prefer. As it looms into view along Via Patroclo, it makes famed rugby grounds like Ellis Park or the Millennium Stadium look more like the local town domain.
Eleven concrete towers, all 50m high, loom above the third tier of seating to prop up the distinctive roof of red girders which ominously cuts the skyline.
Built in 1926 and later named after the two-time World Cup winning player of the 1930s, San Siro used to hold 100,000. Now, with the requirement to have all fans seated, it nudges over 80,000.
All tickets in the official capacity of 80,018 had been snapped up for Sunday’s (AEDT) All Blacks Test against Italy, only the second-ever rugby match at the country’s biggest stadium.
Recent All Blacks sides have graced Wembley, Croke Park and Old Trafford, but this may be something again.
In terms of capacity, San Siro doesn’t quite compete with FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou, which seats 98,772 fans.
But one of our group, a self-confessed “stadium geek”, insists it rates among the top arenas in Europe. Being Scottish, it also holds still-painful memories as the scene of his compatriots’ defeat to Costa Rica in the 1990 World Cup.
Under the three-tiered stands, there’s four dressing rooms. Home (Italy), away (All Blacks), and the two special sanctuaries of Italian soccer giants AC Milan and Inter Milan. The European footballing giants pulled average crowds of 59,000 and 55,000 respectively last season.
We get a peek inside AC Milan’s sheds, where Brazilian coach Leonardo weaves his magic. Each locker has its own red leather bucket seat like a sleek racing car, complete with individual flat screen televisions.
Onto the pitch, and each team’s dugout has individual, heated leather seats, just in case the Milan winter chill bites.
The pitch itself is firm, but looks like freshly-rolled carpet, which isn’t too far from the truth.
As impressive as it is when empty, it’s difficult to imagine the noise and atmosphere on match day.
All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith has been there, having played four years in Italy, and admits the fresh-faced side including debutants Mike Delany, Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith need to be ready for anything.
“It’s hard to explain that to the boys. We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t hit them all of the sudden,” Smith said.
One thing’s for sure, Smith knows the Nick Mallett-coached Italians, who will have former NSW and Penrith halfback Craig Gower in their side, will be walking noticeably taller when they run out in search of their first win in 10 attempts against the All Blacks.
“I imagine the Italian buildup will be very emotional, they’ll play on emotion early and they’ll be very physical and hard to overcome early on,” Smith said.
“They’re big boys, and strong and aggressive, so they’re going to be a real battle and it’s our job to defuse that as quickly as we can and try to take the crowd away from them. It’s going to be a cauldron.”