Tournament favourites France will expect to start their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy in Paris on Saturday.
Tournament favourites France will expect to start their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy at the Stade de France on Saturday.
A quick look over France's matchday 22 and one will easily understand why the World Cup finalists are the bookies' choice to dethrone England.
But it would be premature to jump to conclusions about les Bleus regaining the Six Nations title. Lest we forget that Italy were the winners the last time these teams met.
Of course a lot has changed since that fateful day last June, not least of all the coaching staff of both teams. While most observers have put that shock result down to former Bleus boss Marc LiÃ¨vremont's inability to get the best out of the players at his disposal, it would be unfair to take credit away from the Italian players on the pitch that day.
Victory in Rome over the then-defending champions marked a milestone in Italy's development. We would also do well to remember that the Italian pack that was at the origin of that win is largely unchanged and although new Italy boss Jacques Brunel has spoken of an evolution in Italy's style of play, we shouldn't expect an overnight revolution.
That's said, if Brunel is true to his word, the Azzurri XV that includes nine Treviso players will give it a proper go on the outskirts of Paris and be more adventurous than the crashing-and-mauling style that characterised the Nick Mallett era.
Whether that's a good idea against this French side is debatable.
The core of the French side that almost caused an upset at Eden Park in October is intact and the five changes made Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© have been met with applause across the country, making for a potentially world-beating mix: Maxime Medard is without doubt France's most exciting full-back, Wesley Fofana and Julien Malzieu have been tearing defences apart for Clermont, Louis Picamoles has been the outstanding ball carrier in Europe this season, Vincent Debaty has impressed with his energy levels and FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc is, well, a specialist fly-half which Morgan Parra, for all his talent, simply wasn't.
Saint-AndrÃ© has been beating the 'consistency' drum since his appointment but he is not the first French coach to bemoan his country's erratic Test form and whether he can bring regularity to this group's performances remains to be seen.
So far all the noises coming out of the French camp at Marcoussis have been positive, but the real test will come when things go wrong, as they inevitable do for any side. Though it's highly doubtful that it will happen this weekend.
For all of the Italian pack's power, they won't dominate their hosts. And while we're excited about the fresh look of the Azzurri backline, it's hard to imagine them matching France's arsenal of attacking firepower.
Players to watch:
For France: Most of the headlines following France's squad announcements have focussed on the inclusion of Clermont's 24-year-old inside centre Wesley Fofana, who has been ripping defensive lines to shreds all season. Fofana should feel right at home alongside club team-mates Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu. We reckon his running lines will compliment FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc's free-flowing distribution perfectly.
For Italy: Last year's Six Nations Player of the Championship, full-back Andrea Masi scored Italy's only try in their win over the French. The former Racingman has since quit Paris to return to Italy but has failed to set the field alight in an Aironi team that continues to struggle. As the last line of defence, he could be in for a busy afternoon. He should expect some help from Luke McLean, whose left boot should compliment Masi's big right foot in the rear guard.
Head-to-head: If there is a chink in France's armour, some have suggested that it's at loosehead pop. Belgian-born Vincent Debaty has had a storming season but many still question his ability at scrum time. Able to play on both sides of the scrum – his only previous cap came at tighthead back in 2006 – the French staff have handed him the number one jersey. He'll face a stern test against one of the best in the business, Martin Castrogiovanni. They've met twice this season and on both occasions Debaty come out relatively unscathed. With both teams looking to base their game around a strong set piece, their battle could set the tone. Either way, it's likely to be crucial for the rest of Debaty's international career.
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: Italy's record outisde of Rome isn't worth writing home about. We can't see any other result than a big win for the hosts.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Yoann Maestri, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 Lionel Beauxis, 22 Maxime Mermoz.
Italy:15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c) 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Quintin Geldenhuys, 4 Cornelius van Zyl, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Lorenzo Cittadini, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Fabio Semenzato, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Gonzalo Canale.
Date: Saturday, February 4
Venue: Stade de France, St. Denis (Paris)
Weather: Sunny. Daytime high -1Â°C
Kick-off: 15.30 (14.30 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens