There's a continental clash to kick off the 2021 Six Nations. Italy will hope to spring a surprise against a French team tipped by many to land their first title since 2010

Six Nations Italy v France Preview

Six years ago this month, Italy beat Scotland away in round three of the Six Nations. In their next game they got clobbered 29-0 at home by France in what we know now to be the start of the worst run in the championship’s history.

The Azzurri’s losing streak stands at 27 matches going into this Saturday’s 2021 Six Nations opener against the French in Rome (2.15pm). During that time, only twice have they lost by fewer than ten points – against France (23-21) in 2016 and Scotland (29-27) in 2018. The last time they picked up even a losing bonus point was nearly three years ago.

These are the grisly facts and the reason why talk of promotion and relegation quickly surfaces on chatrooms at this time of year. What are Italy to do?

Well, coach Franco Smith is taking the long-term view, his youthful 32-man squad containing only four players with more than 30 caps. He has entrusted the crucial No 10 role to Paolo Garbisi, a 20-year-old greenhorn who has impressed in a struggling team.

Six Nations Italy v France preview Paolo Garbisi

Bedding in: stand-off Paolo Garbisi is the face of the new youthful Italy team (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

Whether Smith, an affable South African, will be around to see the fruits of his forward-looking policy remains to be seen. They have the benefit of three home games this year but nobody outside the camp is expecting anything other than five more Italian defeats.

Until recently, France would have been viewed as ideal opponents for them, such is their unpredictability. But 2020 seemingly changed all that. Les Bleus lost out to England in last year’s fractured Six Nations only on points difference. And their understrength side also took England to the wire in the Autumn Nations Cup, losing the final in extra time.

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In 24-year-old Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, last year’s Player of the Championship with 46% of the vote, they have a global star.

Despite an escalating injury list that includes his half-back partner Romain Ntamack and centre Virimi Vakatawa, France go into the tournament as favourites in many people’s eyes. Matthieu Jalibert, Ntamack’s replacement, has been playing out of his skin in the Top 14.

Six Nations Italy v France preview action from France in Italy in 2020

Attacking mindset: Paul Willemse offloads to Antoine Dupont during last year’s Six Nations win over Italy

“We’re not underdogs any more. We’re going to go everywhere as serious challengers,” former France hooker Benjamin Kayser told Scrum V. “And that’s a completely different ball game. Every single game has to be a moment to shine, to learn, to perform.”

The countries met twice last year. Italy produced their best performance of the 2020 Six Nations in Paris, scoring three tries in a 35-22 defeat.

They returned to the French capital in November for an Autumn Nations Cup pool game and were trounced 36-5, despite leading through Carlo Canna’s try. Here’s an Italian try to savour from a past Italy-France match, scored by their greatest-ever player, Sergio Parisse…

What’s the big team news?

Italy’s big call is to drop Canna, a second playmaker at 12, and give a debut there to centre Juan Ignacio Brex. Brex, 27, is a former Argentina XV and sevens player who left South America in 2015 and has been going well for Benetton.

With Jake Polledri, arguably Italy’s best player, sadly absent after sustaining a knee injury last autumn, 22-year-old Michele Lamaro makes his first start in the back row after a couple of caps in the Autumn Nations Cup.

Second-row David Sisi makes his first start since the 2019 World Cup while Jacopo Truller wears the 15 shirt occupied by Matteo Minozzi in Italy’s previous Six Nations game against England in October. Minozzi, of Wasps, is unavailable after saying he was too physically and mentally tired to live in a bubble for another two months.

Six Nations Italy v France preview Juan Ignacio Brex

Test debut: Benetton’s Juan Ignacio Brex makes a tackle v Ospreys (Inpho)

France’s side looks none too shabby despite their injuries. Jalibert, who started three games in the autumn, replaces the injured Ntamack (broken jaw) while Arthur Vincent fills in for Vakatawa (knee ligaments) in midfield.

No 8 Grégory Alldritt, France’s top ball-carrier last year and shortlisted for 2020 Player of the Championship, lines up having joined the squad late due to an arthroscopy. And Brice Dulin and Gabin Villière are rewarded for their autumn performances with starts in the back three.

Racing 92 hooker Camille Chat (calf) is missing, so Pierre Bourgarit – a starter at Twickenham in December – makes the match 23. Also on the bench is Baptiste Serin, who captained France in their Autumn Nations Cup game against Italy.

Six Nations Italy v France preview Arthur Vincent

Able understudy: centre Arthur Vincent in action last month for Montpellier against Lyon (AFP/Getty)

What have the teams said?

Italy head coach Franco Smith: “There’s a big expectation around winning the first game but we don’t want to win just one – we want to win consistently.

“We want to be sustainable and significant in our approach. We don’t want to have a one-off where we play well. This is a new start for Italian rugby.”

Six Nations Italy v France preview The 2021 Six Nations launch

Virtually speaking: the national captains at last week’s Six Nations championship media launch (Inpho)

Italy captain Luca Bigi: “It’s important to share the responsibility in the group, and then we build together. It’s important to go step by step every game and learn from our errors.”

France captain Charles Ollivon: “We need to reach for excellence, particularly in a tournament such as the Six Nations.

“So it’s up to us to keep this going and to keep asking for more work and more improvement. It’s absolutely necessary for the level we are playing at, particularly because we are representing our country and our supporters.”

Any interesting statistics?

  • France have won the previous ten meetings, the latest a 36-5 Autumn Nations Cup success in Paris last November
  • Italy’s last victory in the fixture was in 2013 in Rome (23-18), one of just two wins by them over France in 21 Six Nations meetings
  • Antoine Dupont made the most offloads in last year’s tournament, with 12. No one matched France’s team total of 55 offloads
  • France crossed the gain-line with 59% of their carries in the 2020 Six Nations – the best rate of any team. Italy had the worst success rate (39%)
  • It was the same story in the scrum, France (100% success rate) and Italy (77%) at opposite ends of the spectrum
  • The Azzurri are hoping to end a 27-match losing run in the championship – the worst sequence in history
  • None of the Italy squad players have yet to celebrate their 30th birthday. Hooker Luca Bigi and scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani will be 30 in April
  • France scored six tries from kick returns in last year’s tournament – the most of any nation. Italy were the only side not to score from a kick return
  • All but two of the clubs playing in the top leagues of the competing nations are represented in the Six Nations squads. The clubs to miss out are Agen and Bayonne
  • Charles Ollivon was top try-scorer in the 2020 Six Nations (four). He also won the most lineouts (25), made the joint most try assists (four) and the fourth most tackles (77)
  • Staying on tackles, French forwards Bernard Le Roux (84) and Grégory Alldritt (81) ranked first and second last year
  • The absent Jake Polledri has beaten 98 defenders for Italy since his debut in 2018 – more than twice as many as any other Italian
  • Italy made 51 handling errors in last year’s championship, fewer than any other side
Six Nations Italy v France preview Charles Ollivon

Formidable: Charles Ollivon had an outstanding 2020 championship, his first as captain (Getty Images)

What time does it kick off and is it on TV?

Italy v France, Saturday 6 February, Stadio Olimpico

The match kicks off at 2.15pm in Rome and will be broadcast live on ITV. There will be live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

It’s largely an English officiating team for this Six Nations opener, with Matt Carley the referee, Christophe Ridley an assistant and Karl Dickson the Television Match Official. Scotsman Mike Adamson is the other assistant referee.

What are the line-ups?

ITALY

Jacopo Trulla: Luca Sperandio, Marco Zanon, Ignacio Brex, Montanna Ioane; Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Cherif Traorè, Luca Bigi (capt), Marco Riccioni, Marco Lazzaroni, David Sisi, Sebastian Negri, Johan Meyer, Michele Lamaro.

Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Giosué Zilocchi, 19 Niccolò Cannone, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Maxime Mbandà, 22 Guglielmo Palazzani, 23 Carlo Canna.

FRANCE

Brice Dulin; Teddy Thomas, Arthur Vincent, Gaël Fickou, Gabin Villière; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon (capt), Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Francois Gros, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Louis Carbonel, 23 Damian Penaud.

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