France have gone 12 years without title success but are tipped to end that drought. Perennial strugglers Italy first up this afternoon should be an ideal opener for them
Six Nations France v Italy Preview
The favourites against the no-hopers, a mismatch of major proportions. So reads the script for the final first-round Guinness Six Nations match at Stade de France today (3pm).
If there is any danger for France it is in potential rustiness, because many of their players are woefully short of match play. In fact, they’ve been going in and out of the squad more times than a Christmas party hokey cokey. Seven players had covid last month, including captain Antoine Dupont, and head coach Fabien Galthié misses this match having also tested positive.
His absence shouldn’t be too keenly felt. New Italy coach Kieran Crowley has hinted at a return to traditional strengths, to the scrum and maul. But with the likes of Cyril Baille, Paul Willemse and Grégory Alldritt in the French pack – the latter described as an “unbelievable” player by England boss Eddie Jones – the hosts have the firepower to crush Italy at source.
And if France have lots of ball to play with then watch out, because if half-backs Dupont and Romain Ntamack can lead the All Blacks a merry dance, as they did last autumn, they can certainly put Italian heads in a spin.
Ex-England captain Lawrence Dallaglio, the son of an Italian father, says he fears for Italy as they attempt to halt a 32-match losing run in the championship.
“I’m really worried about Italy this year, even more so,” the former No 8 told BT Sport. “The laws are rewarding attacking, positive play, so I think it will be a high-scoring tournament. And I think Italy are going to be on the end of a few beatings yet again. Paolo Garbisi is one of their bright sparks but it’s going to be a tough few weeks for the Italian team.”
Runners-up for the past two years, French are tipped to land their first Six Nations title since 2010. Bookmakers Sporting Index have predicted with precision how they will achieve it, with tallies of 17 tries and 143 points forecast.
Said Dallaglio: “France hold all the aces. They’re in great form. They play Ireland and England at home. They’ve blown a couple of Six Nations titles in recent years and they almost have to win this one because otherwise they will go into the World Cup year [when France are hosts] without having won anything tangible.”
What to expect this afternoon? A comfortable if disjointed win for France ahead of next week’s huge encounter with Ireland. And a spirited but losing effort by an Italy team that will measure progress in this tournament not by results but by performances.
What’s the big team news?
France start with 13 of the XV that hammered New Zealand 40-25 in November. Hooker Julien Marchand and back-row Dylan Cretin are the two changes, Marchand having overcome the rib injury that he suffered in a scrum against Georgia last autumn.
Peato Mauvaka and François Cros drop down to the bench and are part of a 5-3 forwards-backs split there, as opposed to 6-2 in their win over the All Blacks.
Charles Ollivon, Galthié’s original choice as captain, is still absent following a serious knee injury last year. so World Rugby Player of the Year Dupont wears the armband.
Italy include four uncapped players in their match-day 23. Tommaso Menoncello and No 8 Toa Halafihi, starting at wing and No 8 respectively, will make their debut while Leonardo Marin and Manuel Zuliani will hope to win their first caps from off the bench.
The match marks the start of a new chapter for Italy, with experienced players such as Luca Bigi and Carlo Canna jettisoned to make way for younger talent. Fitness permitting, veteran captain Sergio Parisse, the third-most capped player ever, is expected to appear later in the tournament for his international swansong at the age of 38.
What have the teams said?
Ex-France hooker Benjamin Kayser: “The expectation is sky-high. The potential is ginormous. Everybody is hungry, the difference between top teams is marginal. It’s boring to say this but I just want to take it one game at a time because that’s the reality of top-level competition.”
Italy coach Kieran Crowley: “The work done in these weeks of preparation has been intense and of quality. There is a lot of energy in the group and awareness of taking the field in one of the most important tournaments in the world of rugby and sport. Focus on our performance: it will be important to stay clear in the key moments of the match.”
Italy scrum-half Callum Braley: “We’ve had a big turnover of players in the last year and a half. It’s kind of a new team in that respect, a new group of people, and this group is developing and growing every game. We know we are responsible for changing our identity and how people view us.”
Any interesting statistics?
- France have won the previous 11 meetings, the latest by 50-10 on the same day (6 February) last year
- They have won 23 of their 24 home games against Italy, the Azzurri’s only victory in France coming in Grenoble in 1997
- Italy’s last victory in the fixture was in 2013 in Rome (23-18), one of just two wins by them over France in 22 Six Nations meetings
- Italy are hoping to end a 32-match losing run in the championship – the worst sequence in history
- France made the most offloads in the 2021 Six Nations (46), with Antoine Dupont making the most by any player (nine)
- Dupont was directly involved in eight tries during that championship, more than anyone else. He scored three tries and made five assists
- Italy averaged 17.6 kicks from hand in last year’s Six Nations last year, fewer than any other side. Only Ireland (174) averaged more passes per game than the Azzurri (161)
- Italy’s goalkicking success rate of 91% was bettered only by Ireland (94%) in that tournament – one of their few crumbs of comfort
- Sebastian Negri made 64 carries and 68 tackles for Italy in the 2021 Nations, a combined tally (132) that only Wales’ Taulupe Faletau (140) exceeded
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
France v Italy, Sunday 6 February at Stade de France
The match kicks off at 3pm (GMT) in Paris and will be broadcast live on ITV. There will be live commentary on BBC Sports Extra.
Scotland’s Mike Adamson is the referee, with Georgia’s Nika Amashukeli and Australia’s Damon Murphy holding the flags. Another Aussie, Brett Cronan, is the TMO.
What are the line-ups?
Melvyn Jaminet; Damian Penaud, Gaël Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villière; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (capt); Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio, Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse, Anthony Jelonch, Dylan Cretin, Grégory Alldritt.
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Romain Taofifénua, 20 François Cros, 21 Maxime Lucu, 22 Yoram Moefana, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Edoardo Padovani; Tommaso Menoncello, Juan Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Montanna Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Danilo Fischetti, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Tiziano Pasquali, Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (capt), Toa Halafihi.