Preview: France v Italy

Date published: February 5 2016

Italy v France - RBS Six Nations

The opening game of the 2016 Six Nations will feature plenty of fresh faces when France take on Italy at the Stade de France.

There is a new head coach taking charge of his first game, France's Guy Novès, up against a coach whose reign already feels over in Jacques Brunel.

Brunel, a former France assistant coach, is stepping down after the tournament and while under his tenure Italy have only accepted one Wooden Spoon in four years, you sense another is only a few weeks away.

France's makeover has injected some much-needed optimisim back into les Bleus after that Rugby World Cup humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks. 

As rebrands go it's a comprehensive one – none of the backs from that quarter-final drubbing in Cardiff remain, although Wesley Fofana would be involved were it not for injury.

Hopes are high for the four debutants Novès has gone with in his starting XV along with three others on the bench, hoping that they can add plenty of energy and attitude to the side.

Italy's changes are far less inspiring, aside from Carlo Canna at fly-half who feels like the best option going forward to restore some solidity in the Italian number ten jersey.

This is the first game of an exceedingly tough schedule for the Azzurri in a tournament where little is expected of them. They have nothing to lose.

Players to watch: 

For France: All eyes will be on les Bleus's newbies with Jonathan Danty, Virimi Vakatawa, Sébastien Bezy and Paul Jedrasiak making their debuts while Camille Chat, Jefferson Poirot and Yacouba Camara are also in line to start their Test careers from the bench.

Bézy is an intelligent scrum-half who broke through last season for Toulouse. He is very lively, and loves a snipe for a try but also has a great pass on him, as well as a good kicking game. Danty has been compared to Mathieu Bastareaud for much of his career, having come through the same path at Stade Français, but offers much more in terms of speed, footwork and distribution. He's also fantastic over the ball, and invaluable as an extra back-rower at times.

Sevens superstar Vakatawa is very powerful, and great at offloading, he was miles ahead of anyone else in the offload ranks before the Wellington leg of the Sevens, which he missed. He is obviously a gamble having not played XVs for more than two years, when he was at Racing, but will return full-time after the Olympics. Up front, Jedrasiak is the former France U20s skipper and really dynamic second-row who broke through at Clermont at the end of last season, but did enough to start the Top 14 final. He won't shrink away from confrontation, but his ball-carrying and contributions when France have the ball are rare for a lock. 

For Italy: Italy have four debutants in their squad with exciting full-back David Odiete and wing Mattia Bellini keen to show off their attacking prowess alongside their more experienced counterparts while prop Andrea Lovotti and Treviso hooker Ornel Gega will look to cement their places up front.

However, the biggest responsibility rests on the shoulders of another inexperienced head in Carlo Canna who has been preferred at fly-half to Kelly Haimona. Canna, who only made his debut last year, will relish the opportunity to shine but knows he faces a litmus test against a French side who will be keen to impress in their first match with their new coach. If the Zebre playmaker can direct operations successfully, he could cement his place in the Azzurri's starting line-up.

Head-to-head: If the Azzurri are to be successful, so much depends on the performance of their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse. The Stade Français stalwart missed most of his country's Rugby World Cup campaign through injury and will be keen to hit the ground running upon his return to Test rugby.

Parisse is one of the most skillful players in the game and it will be a clash of styles when he goes up against France's Louis Picamoles whose powerful runs with ball in hand are expected to get his side over the advantage line. Both are hugely influential for their respective sides and don't be surprised if the player who wins this battle is also on the winning side at the end of this match.

Previous results:
2015: France won 29-0, Stadio Olimpico
2014: France won 31-10, Stade de France
2013: Italy won 23-13, Stadio Olimpico
2012: France won 30-12, Stade de France
2011: Italy won 22-21, Stadio Flaminio
2010: France won 46-20, Stade de France
2009: France won 50-8, Stadio Flaminio
2008: France won 25-13, Stade de France
2007: France won 39-3, Stadio Flaminio
2006: France won 37-12, Stade de France

Prediction: With several uncapped players in their respective squads, both sides are in a transitional phase but France shouldn't have any trouble in seeing off the visitors' challenge at the Stade de France. France to win by 15 points!

The teams:

France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Hugo Bonneval, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastien Bezy, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Jefferson Poirot, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yacouba Camara, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Maxime Mermoz

Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Fuser, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Andries van Schalkwyk, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean

Date: Saturday, February 6
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 15:25 local (14:25 GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by David Skippers

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