Italy and France will get their respective Six Nations campaigns underway in what should be an entertaining encounter between two sides at opposite ends of the scale in terms of their development in the international arena.
The Azzurri start the Six Nations in a desperate mood as they are currently on a 27-match losing run in the competition – the worst streak in the tournament’s history – which stretches back to a Round Three encounter against Scotland in 2015 when Italy claimed a narrow 22-19 triumph at Murrayfield.
Adding insult to injury for head coach Franco Smith and his troops is the fact that they have also lost their last 10 Tests against France, with their most recent triumph against Les Bleus registered in 2013 (23-18) at the same venue in Rome.
Smith has outlined his vision to make his team more competitive against their Six Nations rivals and opts to do that with a youthful and inexperienced crop of players. However, they suffered a huge setback during last year’s Autumn Nations Cup defeat to Scotland when they lost the services of star back-row Jake Polledri, who suffered a significant knee ligament injury which has ruled him out of the Six Nations.
With little depth in their ranks, replacing a player of Polledri’s calibre is virtually impossible and the 25-year-old’s absence significantly diminishes Italy’s chances of beating France, who by contrast, are a side brimming with confidence as they have improved greatly under the guidance of their head coach, Fabien Galthie.
Last time they met
A youthful and inexperienced France side proved too strong for the Azzurri, when these sides met in a Round Three Autumn Nations Cup encounter in Paris, and Galthie’s men ran out 36-5 winners – a result which secured their place in that tournament’s final against England. As in most of their games, Italy were competitive during the early stages and trailed 10-5 at half-time but, despite fielding a second-string side with 13 changes from their previous Test against Scotland, Les Bleus’ class shone through. They upped the ante on attack in the second half to clinch a deserved victory in which Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villiere, Baptiste Serin, Teddy Thomas and Sekou Macalou all crossed for tries.
What they said
Despite having home ground advantage, Italy head into this fixture as overwhelming underdogs and Smith knows they face a daunting task against their more fancied opponents.
“We will face with courage the France that showed its qualities during the last Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup,” he said.
“We follow our growth process to continue introducing the new generations.”
Meanwhile, France captain Charles Ollivon is aware that they are amongst the early tournament favourites but insists that it is not something which they are concentrating on.
“No, not particularly, we don’t feel like we are the favourites. It’s all being played by the media,” he answered when questioned about the favourites tag recently.
“It doesn’t change our approach. We’re gathered together in Nice to prepare the first match against Italy in Rome, that’s what we are focusing on now.
“Each match will be difficult and complicated, we’re aware of it, so that’s the state of mind we’re in right now.”
Players to watch
With so many inexperienced players in their starting line-up, much will depend on the experience and leadership of Italy’s captain, hooker Luca Bigi. As France hold the upper hand in most facets of play, Bigi will be determined that his side hold their own, at least, in those departments and it all starts in the forward exchanges where he will have to be at his best in the execution of his core duties.
Another player who will be important to the home side’s cause is young fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who has impressed since making his Test debut against Ireland in last year’s tournament. An exciting prospect, the 20-year-old has the ability to unlock the tightest defences with his brilliant skill-set and those playmaking abilities will have to be at their best if the Azzurri want to run their more fancied opponents close.
France have numerous attacking threats throughout their team but one player who could make a big impact on this match is their classy inside centre Gael Fickou, who has been in excellent form for his country and club, Stade Francais, over the past 12 months. The 26-year-old is a superb playmaker, who can change the course of a match with a moment of brilliance and he will hoping to do just that against the Azzurri. Fickou has also impressed on defence and his organisational skills in that department should not be underestimated.
Romain Ntamack is a big loss for France to start the 6N
But very excited to see Matthieu Jalibert get some more time in the No10 jersey
He’s been in great form for Bordeaux, including orchestrating victory at Racing 92 last weekend
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) January 27, 2021
Other players to keep an eye on will be Matthieu Jalibert and Gregory Alldritt, who have been at the forefront of France’s improved performances since last year. Jalibert has done well since taking over from the injured Romain Ntamack as first-choice fly-half during last year’s Autumn Nations Cup. The 22-year-old’s brilliance on attack gives Les Bleus an edge as they head into this fixture, while his goalkicking is also superb and don’t be surprised if he finishes with a big points haul. Alldritt has become a mainstay in France’s pack and he combines excellent athleticism with a solid power game which makes him a threat to opponents. He also combines brilliantly with his backs and usually wreaks havoc when he does this.
Although there are several players who will be keen to lay down an early marker in the tournament, by getting the better of their direct opponent, the duel between the scrum-halves, Stephen Varney and Antoine Dupont, will be a good one to watch as both will be important to their respective teams’ causes.
Despite only being 19 years old, Varney impressed in his three previous Tests but those appearances were all off the replacements bench and he faces a daunting task in his first Test start against Dupont, who is the reigning Six Nations Player of the tournament and arguably the best scrum-half in the world currently.
Welsh-born Varney provides a slick service to his outside backs and has an eye for the try-line but those are attributes which Dupont has also mastered while his playmaking ability is amongst the best in the business. If Varney wants to make an impact, he will also have to be at his best defensively as his counterpart’s sniping breaks could change the course of this match in an instant.
Recent matches between these sides have been one-sided affairs with Les Bleus dominating for long periods before sealing relatively easy victories by huge winning margins. We don’t see this encounter being any different, especially considering the inexperience in the Azzurri ranks while France have named a strong matchday squad. France to win by 20 points.
2020: France won 36-5 in Paris
2020: France won 35-22 in Paris
2019: France won 47-19 in Paris
2019: France won 25-14 in Rome
2018: France won 34-17 in Marseille
2017: France won 40-18 in Rome
2016: France won 23-21 in Paris
2015: France won 29-0 in Rome
Italy: 15 Jacopo Trulla, 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Juan Ignacio Brex, 11 Montanna Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Michele Lamaro, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 David Sisi, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi, 1 Cherif Traore
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Giosuè Zilocchi, 19 Niccolò Cannone, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Maxime Mbanda, 22 Guglielmo Palazzani, 23 Carlo Canna
France: France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Arthur Vincent, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Gabin Villiere, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (c), 6 Dylan Cretin, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Anthony Jelonch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Louis Carbonel, 23 Damian Penaud
Date: Saturday, February 6
Venue: Stadio Olimpico
Kick-off: 15:15 local (14:15 GMT)
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant Referees: Mike Adamson (Scotland), Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Karl Dickson (England)