Dunedin - An emotional Nick Mallett defended his record ahead of what could be his last match as Italy coach, a Rugby World Cup clash with Ireland, saying no side any longer played their "B team" against the Azzurri.
The winners of the Pool C climax at Dunedin's Otago Stadium are all but certain to go through to the quarter-finals, with a place in the last eight something no Italy team has ever yet achieved at the World Cup.
But if Italy are knocked out on Sunday it will bring the curtain down on Mallett's four years in charge.
The Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) announced before the World Cup the former South Africa coach would be replaced after the tournament by ex-France assistant coach Jacques Brunel, previously in charge of Perpignan, with whom he won the French Championship two years ago.
"We've completely turned around the way other teams think about Italy," said Mallett.
"They used to be confident enough to put their B team in against us and now no-one does that against Italy any more."
Under Mallett, Italy have so far played 41 Tests, won nine and lost 32.
"I think if you just take the wins and losses, you'd be disappointed with only nine wins out of 40-odd games," he said after the team to play Ireland was announced on Friday.
"But we've only probably played three times against teams weaker than us.
"I think this side has improved tremendously and is unrecognisable from the team I took over four years ago.
"Not only have we improved in the fact we've lost to the top sides by less but we've beaten on every occasion we can, teams we should have beaten."
Mallett, who guided the Springboks to an unsurpassed run of 17 consecutive Test victories and the semi-finals of the 1999 World Cup, used Italy's recent results against the All Blacks to illustrate their progress.
"Italy lost 76-14 to New Zealand in the last World Cup. The last time we played them in New Zealand we conceded three tries and lost 27-6 with a great performance. We then played them in Milan and they're still a great side, if not the best side in the world, but we lost 20-6 and probably should have had a penalty try."
Italy have lost their last 15 Tests against Ireland but when the teams met in the Six Nations, in Rome in February, the Irish came away with a 13-11 win only after Ronan O'Gara's last-ditch drop-goal.
But a few weeks later in Rome, Italy achieved a first Six Nations win against France by 22-21.
"A lot of times in the past they've been disappointed to lose but pleased to run the opposition close but this (the Ireland match) was one of the first times there was genuine disappointment they hadn't managed to hold out and win," Mallett explained.
"That's a very good sign because it meant the team had started to believe it wasn't just good enough to be competitive," added Mallett, whose post-Italy future remains uncertain.
"That experience helped us against France and they came out with a victory.
"That's a mental side of this Italian side that has improved a lot over the four years. They are not satisfied just to compete."
Italy team manager Luigi Troiani praised Mallett for creating a "very solid team" and the coach said he would be sad to leave.
"Rugby's given me a tremendous amount, but in terms of human relationships it's the closest I've been to a team," a clearly moved Mallett said.
"They are more than rugby players, they are my family in Italy."
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Substitutes: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Jonathan Sexton, 22 Andrew Trimble
15 Andrea Masi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Fabio Semenzato, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Cornelius van Zyl, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Salvatore Perugini
Substitutes: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Andrea Lo Cicero, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Paul Derbyshire, 20 Edoardo Gori, 21 Riccardo Bocchino, 22 Luke McLean