France out to confirm favourites tag
February 2, 2012
Will Thierry Dusautoir and Philippe Saint-Andre be clasping the Six Nations trophy at the end of the tournament? © Getty Images
Philippe Saint-Andre's France kick off their Six Nations campaign against Jacques Brunel's Italy at the Stade de France on Saturday with the hosts looking to avenge their shock defeat in Rome last year.
France are the tournament's most successful side in its latest guise and are favourites to add to the five titles they have won in the last 12 years. Under the new found pragmatism of Saint-Andre, gone are the days of playing scrum-halves at fly-half while cultivating facial hair and instead, Les Bleus will aim to establish a ruthless streak against the Azzurri.
Amid reports of infighting and bureaucracy, France shocked the rugby-watching world to reach the final of the World Cup before losing out by a single point to Richie McCaw's All Blacks. But it was France captain Thierry Dusautoir who claimed the IRB Player of the Year honour and the flanker will be at the heart of his side's Six Nations challenge. He will be joined by many familiar faces with Saint-Andre resisting the urge to re-shape the World Cup squad although there is an exciting batch of youngsters progressing into the senior ranks with Wesley Fofana at the forefront.
And blooding youngsters is what Brunel will do as he attempts to rectify the Azzurri's faltering backline. While Italy's forwards - complete with Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni - can vie with the best the world has to offer, their backs have struggled to hit their straps in the past. Brunel has set out his stall with a debut handed to Giovanbattista Venditti and the 21-year-old Tommaso Benvenuti displacing Clermont's Gonzalo Canale in the centres.
France - Player to Watch: Louis Picamoles gets the nod at the back of the scrum and the Toulouse man has had a storming season on the domestic scene. With Imanol Harinordoquy waiting in the shadows should Picamoles fail in his battle with Sergio Parisse, all eyes will be on the 25-year-old to see if he can hold down the No.8 berth.
France - Team News: Saint-Andre has handed a debut to Clermont Auvergne's Wesley Fofana and he will partner Aurelien Rougerie in the centres with fellow Clermont back Julien Malzieu starting on the wing. Maxime Medard keeps his spot at fullback and will line up alongside his Toulouse team-mate Vincent Clerc. But the former Toulon boss has favoured Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili over Clermont's Morgan Parra at half-back with Montpellier's Francois Trinh-Duc starting at fly-half. In the forwards, Saint-Andre hands a start to loose-head Vincent Debaty. William Servat and Nicholas Mas line up alongside him in the front-row while veteran Lionel Nallet partners Pascal Pape in the second-row. In the back-row - Julien Bonnaire, Louis Picamoles and captain Thierry Dusautoir get the nod with Imanol Harinordoquy having to be content with a spot amongst the replacements.
Italy - Key Player: When talking about Italy, one man immediately springs to mind - Sergio Parisse. The No.8 is an inspirational figure on and off the field but can he lift his side to another stunning victory over the French?
Italy - Team News: Brunel hands a debut to Giovanbattista Venditti on the wing and he is partnered by Andrea Masi and Luke McLean in the back three. Winger-come-centre Tommaso Benvenuti lines up at 13 while Alberto Sgarbi takes on the inside centre berth. Their partnership means Clermont centre Gonzalo Canale has to be content with a spot on the bench. Kris Burton takes the fly-half reins while Edoardo Gori lines up at scrum-half. In the pack Brunel has gone for the tried and tested with inspirational skipper Parisse anchoring the side at No.8 but he has opted for Robert Barbieri in the back-row ahead of Mauro Bergamasco. Alessandro Zanni starts at openside with Quintin Geldenhuys lining up at lock along with Cornelius van Zyl. The formidable trio of Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Lo Cicero all start in the front-row.
Key Battle: Vincent Debaty is back in the French side for the first time since 2006 and has a baptism of fire in store with Martin Castrogiovanni facing him on the opposite side of the scrum. Castrogiovanni is one of the world's finest tight-heads and in a match which could be dominated by set piece, Debaty will have to be on his best form.
Trivia: France haven't lost a home game in the opening match of a Championship since 1975 when they fell to Wales.
Stats: Italy have scored more than double the amount of tries that France have in their last five games - 15 against France's six.
"What is important for the French team to have a good base - good discipline, a good set-piece and a good defence because I think all the big performances from France were built with good structure and good formation."
"We have forwards who are able to compete with the best but behind them there is still room for improvement to be able to impose ourselves or have the strength in the backs to perform to the highest level. So we're going to try to re-balance the team, to implement a sense of spirit, to create freedom, to give a free hand to this three-quarter line so that they develop self-confidence."
Prediction: France will come out of the blocks flying and will dispatch Italy but without reaching the four-try benchmark.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14
With just two rounds left in the regular season, we look at the prospects of the teams taking part in the Championship play-offs
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker