France will be looking to get their Six Nations campaign back on track when they face tournament strugglers Italy in Rome on Saturday.
After losing two out of their three matches – against England and Ireland – France know their chances of winning the tournament are gone but they will be determined to finish their campaign on a high with victories over the Azzurri and in their final match against Wales in Paris next weekend.
Italy head into this clash on a ten-match losing streak in the tournament with their last victory registered just over two years ago when they beat Scotland 22-19 at Murrayfield on 28 February 2015.
Since taking over the reins from Jacques Brunel, Italy’s head coach Conor O’Shea has worked hard at getting the best out of his players and despite losing all three their previous fixtures – against Wales, Ireland and England – he has resisted the urge to make wholesale changes to his playing staff and instead kept faith with most of the players which did duty in those previous matches.
Much has been said about Italy’s ‘no ruck’ tactic in their 36-15 loss to England but O’Shea was pleased with that performance and he expects his side to build on that against France.
“Two weeks ago against England no-one gave us even half a chance, but 12 minutes from the end we were trailing only 17-15, well in the game,” he told AFP.
“We have a long road in front of us and we’re here to take it. France, as I’ve said, have great players – but so do we.”
And although his side are on course to finish at the bottom of the table for the second successive year, the former Ireland international is hoping the positives from their campaign brings them success against France.
“We were leading at half-time against Wales (7-3) and England (10-5),” he added.
“Now I want a team that sticks to the game plan for the whole 80 minutes to have the chance to bring home the victory.”
France have shown signs of improvement under the guidance of head coach Guy Novès but their attacking play has not been at his best as they have only scored two tries so far this year.
The performances of fly-half Camille Lopez has been impressive though, particularly his goalkicking as he is currently the joint leading top pointscorer along with Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny, with 37 points after three matches.
France have also been boosted by the return of flyer Virimi Vakatawa who scored a crucial try in the corresponding fixture in his side’s 23-21 win in Paris last year.
Vakatawa missed France’s last match – a 19-9 defeat to Ireland in Dublin – but if he and other attacking threats like Noa Nakaitaci and Brice Dulin are to have an influence on this Test, Lopez’s combination with his scrum-half, Baptiste Serin, will have to be at its best.
Les Bleus are currently on a five-match losing streak away from home in the Six Nations with their last away win in the tournament registered in Rome in 2015.
They will be determined to repeat that feat this weekend.
Players to Watch
For Italy: This will be a special match for Italy’s captain and number eight Sergio Parisse as he will make his 125th appearance for his country. By doing this, he moves up to eighth in the all-time appearance list for Test players and will be hoping to celebrate that achievement with a win. The veteran is one of the best players in his position and his decision-making and general play will have to be superb if Italy want to be victorious.
For France: The performances of Louis Picamoles has been one of the standout features of les Bleus’ campaign. The burly number eight has caught the eye with several outstanding performances with ball in hand and it will take a special defensive effort from the Azzurri to keep him at bay. That is easier said than done, however, as the Northampton Saints man has already gained 235 metres on attack in this year’s tournament which is the most for any forward.
Head-to-head: The battle between the fly-halves will have a huge bearing on the result. With Tommaso Allan injured, Carlo Canna returns to the Azzurri‘s run-on side. Canna was his country’s first-choice number 10 at the start of their campaign but after starting in the home losses against Wales and Ireland, he was replaced by Allan in the defeat to England at Twickenham.
An authorative display against France’s Camille Lopez will cement his place in Italy’s run-on side as Lopez has been one of les Bleus’ best players in this this year’s competition.
2016: France won 23-21 in Paris
2015: France won 29-0 in Rome
2014: France won 31-10 in Paris
2013: Italy won 23-13 in Rome
2012: France won 30-12 in Paris
2011: Italy won 22-21 in Rome
2010: France won 46-20, in Paris
2009: France won 50-8 in Rome
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carla Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Abraham Steyn, 5 Dries van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 George Biagi, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Tommaso Benvenuti, 23 Luca Sperandio
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Julien Le Devedec, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Bernard Le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget
Date: Saturday, March 11
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 14:30 local (13:30 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), JP Doyle (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)