France need to win and win big in Rome on Saturday if they are to keep their hopes of defending the Six Nations crown alive.
France need to win – and win big – in Rome on Saturday if they are to keep their hopes of defending the Six Nations crown alive.
Contrary to what some sectors of the press might lead us to believe, England still have a lot of work to do before they can lay their hands of the trophy and Les Bleus are still in with a shout.
French victories against Italy and Wales are likely and it's more than plausible that the English stumble in Dublin. Yet, even if that scenario does play out over the next two weekends, France need to catch up to the English on points difference. The gap currently stands at 53 points, thanks largely to the drubbing handed to the Azzurri at Twickenham.
Italy have never beaten France, and despite the Azzurri having pushed Ireland and Wales very close recently, it's fair to say the visitors will start as overwhelming favourites at Stadio Flaminio on Saturday.
That said, on the basis of Italy's home games this year, it's difficult to see a repeat of the 50-point lesson the French handed out the last time they were in the Italian capital.
Win or lose this weekend, let's hope the hosts display the same kind of positive attacking spirit that almost got the better of Wales. It's a rare sight to see Nick Mallett's charges have a go with ball in hand and how refreshing it was to them threaten the opposition with something other than a rolling maul.
As usual, most of the noise in the build up has surrounded the French selection choices. In Marc LiÃ¨vremont's defence (and it's rare we spring to his defence when it comes to selection), the French coach has at least shown consistency in his choices – good or bad – during the championship, unlike that latter half of last year.
Not for the first time, SÃ©bastien Chabal is the centre of controversy. The Caveman's detractors were up in arms after France's loss in London, pointing to the number eight's performance an example of how he has a tendency to go missing in big games. The general consensus amongst the critics is that Imanol Harinordoquy should by in the middle of the back row and they were left frustrated when the big Biarrot was left on the bench this weekend.
LiÃ¨vremont's logic for sticking with Chabal does hold some weight however. While Harinordoquy played a full 80 minutes for his club last weekend, Chabal was allowed to graft in the gym while Racing traveled to Bourgoin. With just a handful of games left before the World Cup, LiÃ¨vremont wants to give Chabal, who has been hampered a series of niggles over the past few months, as much game time as possible in the blue jersey to find his best form ahead of the global showpiece. The coach has also said that Harinordoquy will start against Wales, suggesting that Chabal is seen more as the back-up choice in the long run.
While Nick Mallet has given his side a sizable overhaul, none of the changes will come as a huge shock. Most of the names that have been shuffled around are the same we've seen in the Azzurri squad for some time now – with the exception of youngsters Tommaso Benvenuti and Fabio Semenzato.
Likewise, the glaring gap in the Italy's arsenal is not a new one: The lack of a quality place-kicker continues to hamper their progress. What Mallett would give to have a Morne Steyn or a Ronan O'Gara is his side, someone he could rely on his slot nine out of ten kicks. Mirco Bergamasco does not even kick at goal for his club yet he has had to shoulder that responsibility for his national team – an unthinkable situation for any other leading Test nation. Sadly, if the truth be told, Luciano Orquera's selection at fly-half has more to do Italy's need for reliable points accumulator from the tee than his ability to control the game.
Speaking of controlling the game, Italy will have their work cut out for them if they are looking to dominate up front, as is their habit. No one shoves this French pack around. Forwards coach Didier RetiÃ¨re didn't have too many good things to say about the officiating at scrum time at Twickenham and his heavies will want to set the record straight.
We all know how good the hosts' scrum is and more than a few of Italy's forward ply their trade in the Top 14, or have in the past. You know what the say about familiarity and what it breeds. Expect fireworks in the tight stuff!
Players to watch:
For Italy: 24-year-old Fabio Semenzato is the latest candidate in Italy's long search for the new Alessandro Troncon. Earning only his third cap, Semenzato will look to build on a positive start to his Test career. Up against Morgan Parra, who has a real knack for cutting under the skin of his opposite number, the young Treviso number nine has a stern Test ahead of him. Italian scrum-halves can usually count on their pack moving forward, but that won't be a given against probably the best forwards unit in Europe. How will he cope? It'll be interesting to find out.
For France: With all the fuss surrounding certain other French loose forwards, it's been easy to overlook the man brought into the starting line-up this week, Julien Bonnaire. His versatility make him the ideal squad member but it's not difficult to find a pundit who thinks he should be a regular fixture in France's run-on side. The last time France where in Rome, Bonnaire was making his first start in bleu for nearly a year, so it seems to be a venue that holds good omens for the Clermont flank. He had storming game against Toulon last week and even scored a try. Will we be treated to more of the same this weekend?
Head-to-head: They play for rival Parisian clubs who are set for a showdown on the last day of the French championship, but opposing number eights SÃ©bastien Chabal and Sergio Parisse won't be thinking that far ahead. Parisse has been the best player in his position in the tournament but Chabal is due a big performance. It should be a classic….
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: Much as Italy have given their fans hope over the past few weeks, it's tough to argue with the history books. France to win by about twelve points. .
Italy:15 Andrea Masi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mirco Bergamasco, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Fabio Semenzato