FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - Italy's new Irish coach Conor O'Shea was lying in wait for South Africa.
Months before lowly Italy stunned the world's fourth-ranked rugby power in Florence on Saturday, the former Ireland fullback and Harlequins director of rugby met Italy's veteran captain Sergio Parisse in a Paris cafe.
Parisse, who plays club rugby in the French capital for Stade Francais, could scarcely believe what his new coach was expecting of the perennial losers of top-flight rugby.
"We had a coffee, with Conor in Paris, and one of the first things he said was that we must beat South Africa," the number eight said of that meeting.
It was a rare glimpse into the calculations of a man who has been assiduous in publicly setting expectations very low, cautioning fans and Italy's small family of rugby writers not to expect miracles and to be patient.
The day before playing the world champion All Blacks in Rome last Saturday, O'Shea confided to reporters that Italy would lose and that the Azzurri were on a long journey.
"It's a rollercoaster, that's sport," he told them after the All Blacks pitilessly destroyed his young team 68-10 in front of about 60,000 fans who had dared to hope for at least a competitive game under their latest foreign coach.
The headlines were despondent and commentators wondered whether this was yet another false dawn for a side that had won only one Six Nations match in the past three seasons.
A week later in Florence, Parisse was punching the air in triumph as the siren sounded and the Azzurri celebrated their most famous win of all-time, having carefully laid an ambush months in advance for a team that was clearly in decline.
And they did it with the help of a few South Africans.
O'Shea brought former Springbok centre Brendan Venter into the Italy camp as defence coach and Italy threw themselves into tackles, dominated mauls and won despite holding the ball only 42 percent of the time and playing most of the game inside their own half.
"They deserved their victory today. Hats off to a spirited Italian side. They tackled and tackled and tackled for each other and put us under pressure," Springboks coach Allister Coetzee said.
Under O'Shea, Italy have focussed hard on fitness and basic skills to overcome their habit of falling apart in the final 20 minutes.
That appeared to pay off in Florence where Italy, unusually, were doing all the running in the final minutes. They crossed the line from a maul, but the try was disallowed.
O'Shea again played down expectations after Italy's first ever win over South Africa.
"I'm very happy for the players and the fans. For us, it's just the start but it's a very good one and we have a lot to do to change rugby in Italy," he told reporters.
"Today we rode the rollercoaster and we survived by sheer heart and courage. They weren't just brave, they were heroic."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)