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Preview: France v Italy

07th February 2014 11:40

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Captains Pascal Pape of France and Sergio Parisse of Italy

Battle of the blues: France host Italy

Italy visit Paris on Sunday for a Six Nations clash that marks France's 700th official Test match and offers the hosts a chance to lay down a marker.

If the stars align the way we suspect they might over the course of the Championship, the result at the Stade de France could go a long way to determining whether les Bleus claim the overall title.

That may sound like a premature statement since this is only Round Two, but there is a very real chance that points difference will end up deciding with walks away with the silverware in March. And a home fixture against Italy should offer an opportunity to get the scoreboard ticking.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves because Philippe Saint-André's troops' first and only real objective is to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing defeats in two of the last three games against Italy.

Before we assume France will sit atop the standings come Sunday night, it would be wise to have a look back at last week's narrow win over England when, after racing to a healthy lead early on thanks to two somewhat fortuitous tries, the engine ran out of steam.

Indeed, les Bleus looked a beaten side on the hour mark. A review of the stats suggests that England should harbour a number of regrets having dominated possession, territory, and the general attacking stats.

The French line-out malfunctioned, and there was very little penetration in midfield. The home back-row led the weekend's stats for getting over the gainline but those advances were rarely followed by the exploitation of space out wide.

Yet the fact that France were able to rally and pull the game from the fire is significant and the post-victory positive mood in the camp has been sorely missed over the past two years.

That first half-hour was probably the best of the PSA era and if they can continue in a similar vein, then title ambitions are justifiable.

"We can't start swaggering about because we won one match," said the coach.

"We had a difficult 2013. On the contrary, we need to show the desire to improve, to be more effective and to build on last week by recording a second victory.

"We know that, in the Six Nations, there are no easy matches. The Italians showed us that last year, and they posed a lot of problems to the Welsh in their first match."

Italy were gallant in Cardiff, giving the champs a run for their money, but you always felt the team in blue would fall short. Success outside of Rome is a rare thing for the Azzurri. (The Italians' only four away wins since 2007 have all been in the Americas: beating Uruguay, Argentina, Canada and the USA.) Until that trend changes, they will never climb out of the bottom half of the final table.

Italy conceded 14 penalties last weekend - the most of any of the competing teams - with their gameplan still depending largely on disrupting the opposition. It's a slippery slope, and if France are allowed to get a lead via a few penalties, it's hard to see Italy making a comeback similar to England.

Players to watch:

For France: Toulouse flank Yannick Nyanga beat more defenders than anyone else, anywhere, last weekend (seven) to claim the man-of-the-match award. His combination with club team-mate Louis Picamoles is central to getting France going forward. 23-year-old Stade Français full-back Hugo Bonneval, the son of 18-times capped international Eric Bonneval, and gets his chance to emulate his father after an impressive season so far in the Top 14. He starts on the wing. "He is more accustomed to playing at full-back but I saw him play on the wing against London Irish (in the European Challenge Cup)," said Saint-André. "He was exceptional and was named man of the match."

For Italy: Treviso centre Michele Campagnaro had a storming debut last week, his 107 metres made was the best individual tally of Round One as he went on to grab two tries and become only the second debutant ever to claim a Six Nations man-of-the-match award. In addition he was the first player since David Marty in 2005 to score a brace on his Championship debut, and equalled the Italian Six Nations record for tries in a game originally set by Alessandro Troncon in 2000. For ages Italy have lacked penetration in midfield, but they may have found a new star.

Head-to-Head: The Italy scrum has been the rock around which they have built for the last decade, but the loosehead side looked decidedly rickety against Wales last week. Alberto De Marchi has massive boots to fill in the absence of Salvatore Peruguni and Andrea Lo Cicero and his contest with Nicolas Mas could prove decisive.They French scrum dominated England last week while Michele Rizzo, who has been dropped to the bench, was found wanting in Cardiff. If Italy leak three-pointers at scrum time, their goose is cooked.

Previous Results:
2013: Italy won 23-18, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
2012:France won 30-12, Stade de France, Paris
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: Judging by their performance in Wales, Italy are capable of troubling the heavyweights this season. But their record in Paris cannot be overlooked and with France finally building some confidence, we can only see this one going one way. France by 12.

The teams:

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Hugo Bonneval, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Yoann Maestri 4 Pascal Papé (c), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Gael Fickou

Italy:15 Luke McLean, 14 Tommaso Iannone, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Leonardo Sarto, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements:16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Alessandro Zanni, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Angelo Esposito.

Date: Sunday, February 9
Venue: Stade de France, St Denis (Paris)
Kick-off: 16.00 local (15.00 GMT)
Weather: 9°C. Partly Cloudy
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)

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PosTeamPPts
1Ireland58
2England58
3Wales56
4France56
5Scotland52
6Italy50