Preview: Italy v France
Preview: Italy v FranceSHARE
Jacques Brunel's hopes of making Italy believe they can gain at least two wins in this year's Six Nations face a first significant hurdle when the Azzurri host France at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday.
Head coach Brunel led Italy to a fifth place finish last year thanks to a closing 13-6 victory over Scotland in Rome, having produced one of their best ever performances in a 15-19 loss to England.
However the jury remains out on whether those feats, as well as two promising displays against New Zealand and Australia in last November's Test series, are a sure sign that Italy is ready to rock the big boys of European rugby.
Heading into Sunday's match against the World Cup finalists, Italy should be boosted by the knowledge they have beaten Les Bleus before – claiming their first ever tournament win (22-21) over the French at Stadio Flaminio in 2011.
That, says captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse, means France have no option but to take Italy seriously.
"France are a great team, but there's no doubt about the fact they have respect for us. In 2011 we beat them at Flaminio," said Parisse, who plays at French Top 14 side Stade Francais.
"We all know their individual qualities, but we'll be going into this match with no fear, as we do every time."
After a year in which improvements have been made, former France assistant coach Brunel says the Italians' belief in their own capabilities could be key.
"One of the biggest challenges I have is convincing the players of their own ability and potential to challenge the best," Brunel told AFP.
"We still have a lot of things to improve. But a lot of it comes down to the ambition you have, the spirit you show and how you show it.
"We are looking more to impose our game on our opponents than simply oppose them. Even if you manage to oppose the rival team in determined fashion, at some point or another you start to suffer."
In a match that could set the tone for the remainder of the hosts' campaign, as well as determine whether France can live up to the hype of being co-favourites, Italy will be desperate for a solid start.
Their strategy is one based on attack, said Parisse, although the hosts will be mindful of counterbalancing that by improving their notorious lack of discipline at key moments.
"We won't be sitting back and defending. We'll be going out to try and attack. Each of our home games is an opportunity for a win," Parisse said last week.
After Italy's shaky performance against Tonga was followed by more convincing displays against New Zealand then Australia, Parisse is now hoping they can swap promise for tangible results.
"The gap between us and the other teams is closing, but for the credibility of the team we need results."
"We don't fear any team in the Six Nations and we want to confirm our progression by winning matches."
Players to watch:
For Italy: Andrea Masi is a key figure in the Italian backline and the 2011 Player of the Championship will be looked upon to create and finish opportunities. South African-born duo Quintin Geldenhuys and Tobias Botes will also have important roles to play.
For France: All eyes will be on Mathieu Bastareaud and Thierry Dusautoir, who will make their respective returns for Les Bleus. Controversial centre Bastareaud returns to the Test stage after a near three-year absence while former captain Dusautoir last played for France in last year’s championship. Then there’s Wesley Fofana, the highly gifted Clermont centre who will be a constant headache for the Italian defence, and the mercurial Frederic Michalak, who will pull the strings at flyhalf.
Head to Head: Look no further than the battle at No.8 between Sergio Parisse and Lucas Picamoles. Parisse is the heartbeat of the Azzurri with his lead-from-the-front style and it will be up to Picamoles to halt the Italy captain in his tracks. The other key clash is in the front row where Martin Castrogiovanni, one of the world’s top tightheads, scrums down against Yannick Forestier, who for all his experience for Castres has just one Test cap to his name.
2012: France won 30-12, Paris
2011: Italy won 22-21, Rome
2010: France won 46-20, Paris
2009: France won 50-8, Rome
2008: France won 25-13, Paris
2007: France won 39-3, Rome
Prediction: Having lost to the Azzurri in 2011, complacency won’t be a factor for France and with Les Bleus scheduled to play three away games, they will be determined to start their campaign with victory in Rome. Italy’s fighting spirit on home soil and opening fixture rust could make for a closer than expected contest but France should still get the job done by 10 points.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 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 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Pape (captain), 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, Rome
Kick-off: 16.00 (15.00 GMT)
Expected weather: There is a 20 percent chance of rain with temperature ranging between 12°C and 1°C
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
AFP and rugby365