No, les Bleus do not need reminding of how tough it is to win in the Italian capital these days. England escaped an upset last year thanks to a charge-down try and the Wallabies needed a late penalty miss from the hosts to sneak away with the spoils.
Yes, times have changed. Scotland are not the only team that fear defeat at the hands of the Azzurri. The survivors of the French side that lost in 2011 – and there are plenty – will do well to remind their team-mates that any drop in intensity in Rome will come at a heavy cost.
That essentially is the crux of the matter. If France pitch up and play to their full potential, they really should win comfortably. The fiasco of two years ago had a lot to do with the atmosphere in the French camp that meant when the going got tough, the French hardmen went missing. All the indicators so far suggest that the prevailing attitude in Philippe Saint-André’s squad is far more positive compared to the emotional rollercoaster of the Marc Lièvremont era.
That mindset was best illustrated against Samoa last November. After cruising past Australia and Argentina, France were big favourites against the Islanders yet found themselves under huge pressure from an ultra-motivated and physical Samoan side. Instead of buckling, the French stuck to their guns. Fred Michalak’s game management skills and the immense grunt of the French pack come to the fore. Saint-André will hope for more of the same from his side this weekend because you can bet your bottom Euro that Italy will match the ferocity of the Samoan onslaught.
But while French fans will be pleased to see their team operating as a more cohesive unit, certain frustrations remain. Most notably, the continued trend of fielding players out of position. Wesley Fofana will start on the wing while François Trinh-Duc, who hasn’t played full-back for over two years and did so only briefly, will provide cover from the bench. The Test rugby environment is not the place to try find your feet in an unfamiliar role. Surprisingly, Trinh-Duc only found out on Wednesday that he’d be covering two positions. In fact, there is a complete absence of a specialist on the bench for any of the back three…
Much like their visitors, Italy are aiming to build on their strong form in November. Jacques Brunel’s 14-month stint has seen the Azzurri return to the world’s top ten which earned them a place in World Cup Group D alongside France and Ireland.
“We showed in the November Tests, especially against New Zealand and Australia, that we can step up and challenge the big teams in the game,” said Brunel.
“The key now is to produce that kind of performance over the 80 minutes, and on a regular basis.”
Despite Italy’s growing ambitions, all the pressure will be on France. Defeat would spell disaster for their campaign while a solid win could be the first step towards a Six Nations title.
Players to watch:
For Italy: Fly-half Luciano Orquera missed the penalty that would have earned Italy a draw against Australia last year. Goal-kicking has long been Italy’s Achilles heal and Orquera will know that he must find the mark consistently throughout the next two months if his team are going to be competitive. Also keep an eye on Edoardo Gori, who many rate as Italy’s next great scrum-half. He has a lot of developing to do, but the raw talent seems to be there.
For France: More than ten months since his last appearance in bleu, Thierry Dusautoir is back. Having only played five games since his return from injury in mid-December, the Dark Destroyer has yet to reach his best form and there were suggestion earlier in the week that he may not make the final cut. You’d have to be brave selector to leave the former IRB Player of the Year out of your team, and Dusautoir has promised to repay the faith in blood, sweat and guts. Relieved of the burden of the captaincy, the Toulouse flank can now focus of doing what he does best: make tackle after tackle after tackle after tackle….
Head-to-head: The battle between the contrasting styles of number eights Sergio Parisse and Louis Picamoles is set to be gripping. Parisse’s pure athleticism has made him Europe’s best player in the position for years but many believe that power-house Picamoles is the new top dog. Its a contest of Ferrari v Bulldozer, where we, the spectators, will be the winners.
2012:France won 30-12, Stade de France, Paris
2011: Italy won 22-21, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2010:France won 46-20, Stade de France, Paris
2009: France won 50-8, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2008: France won 25-13, Stade de France, Paris
2007: France won 39-3, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2006: France won 37-12, Stade de France, Paris
2005: France won 56-13, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2004: France won 25-0, Stade de France, Paris
2003: France won 53-27, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2002: France won 33-12, Stade de France, Paris
2001: France won 30-19, Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2000: France won 42-31, Stade de France, Paris
Prediction: Much as we think that Italy are no longer pushovers on home soil, the quality of this French side cannot be ignored. Much will depend on how the new-look French backline gels, but we reckon they’ll have enough firepower to get the job done. France by eight points.
Italy:15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Francesco Minto, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi , 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Paul Derbyshire, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Kristopher Burton, 23 Gonzalo Canale.
France:15 Yoann Huget, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Benjamin Fall, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé (c), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Yannick Forestier
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud
Date: Sunday, February 3:
Venue: Stadio Olimpico
Kick-off: 14.30 local (13.30 GMT)
Weather: 20 percent chance of rain. Max 12°C
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)