Italy v France: Six Nations preview as defending champions set to thrash Azzurri in Rome

Jared Wright
France Six Nations defence kicks off at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday when they face off against Italy, a side they have yet to lose to since 2013.

France’s Six Nations defence kicks off at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday when they take on Italy, a side they have not lost to since 2013.

Fabien Galthie’s charges head into the match in red-hot form, winning their last 13 Test matches in a row, including a five from five record last year in the Six Nations.

Les Bleus have dominated this fixture over the years, winning 43 of the 46 official Test matches between the two sides, prevailing in the last 12 meetings with the Azzurri. France will be looking to become the first team to claim back-to-back Six Nations Grand Slams – Les Bleus were the last team to achieve this in 1998, but no team has done so since Italy’s addition to the tournament.

While Italy have struggled in this fixture in recent years, their stunning 22-21 victory over Wales in their last Six Nations match will undoubtedly give them confidence heading into 2023. The Azzurri ended a run of 36 straight defeats dating back to 2015 in the Six Nations and will not want to wait that long for their next. They also enjoyed a strong end to 2022, winning five of their last seven Tests, including a historic first-ever win over Australia.

The Italians have won 13 and drawn one of their 115 Six Nations matches, and they will be driven by the knowledge that two of those wins have come against France. Recent results between the two sides do not read well for Kieran Crowley’s charges, who last came within a score of beating France back in 2016 in the 23-21 loss at the Stade de France.

France head into the match with several of their Grand Slam winners from last year, as injuries to Maxime Lucu, Gabin Villiere and Cameron Woki will undoubtedly take their toll.

Italy are without their star playmaker Paolo Garbisi in the tournament’s opening rounds, with the more than capable hands of Tommy Allan taking over.

Where the game will be won

The three cornerstones of France’s game plan are their kicking, defence and accuracy in the pitch’s final third. Italy’s best chance of getting anything out of the match is to disrupt as many of those as possible.

France will likely build scoreboard pressure early on, taking shots at goal if they don’t crack open the Italian defence in the opening minutes.

Les Bleus’ tactical kicking and chase lines will undoubtedly put pressure on the Italian back three, and it will be down to Ange Capouzzo and Tommaso Menoncello to get the Azzurri out of trouble. Crowley’s side could adopt a similar approach to South Africa last November and only engage France in a kicking battle if absolutely necessary. They have the attacking threats out wide to do so.

It would be negligent not to mention the role the set-pieces will play, as France scored eight of their 17 tries in the 2022 Six Nations from the lineout. The return of Charles Ollivon somewhat offsets Woki’s absence in this area of the game, but it is a facet of the match Italy could put pressure on the defending champions.

Overall, France are overwhelming favourites in all areas of the game, and the best chance Italy has is to win the small battles and accumulate. Their defence has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years and will need to be at its best to defeat France, but overall Les Bleus look to have far too much quality in their matchday squad.

Last time they met

What they said

France back-rower Anthony Jelonch is wary of Italy’s threat and said that Les Bleus would not take the Azzurri lightly.

“They had an incredible year in 2022, defeating Wales, Australia and Samoa. The Italians are full of confidence. We see that they are constantly growing in power, game after game. Even against South Africa, they achieved 50 minutes of very high intensity, where they held off the Springboks. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have happened like this, but now they are in really good shape,” he said.

“We had a complicated first period against them [last year] because they had offered a lot of desire and commitment. We are still expecting a big fight on Sunday in Rome. We will do everything to be there, but I’m sure the team will be ready for this big challenge.”

Italy Rugby Federation president Marzio Innocente predicted that Crowley’s charges would win two matches this Six Nations, and the head coach of the Azzurri said that he would be preparing his side with the mentality to win each game.

“We want to play a proper part in this Six Nations. This year we want to go out there for all five of our matches with the idea of winning, and we know that we’re capable of doing it,” Crowley said.

“If you took a poll right now, people are thinking where teams are going to finish in the Six Nations, I would picture Italy would be sixth.

“We’ll be the underdogs again, which is fine. We’ll just concentrate on what we do.”

Players to watch

Toulouse flyer Ange Capuozzo was Italy’s hero last year, setting up a try in the historic win over Wales before grabbing two against the Wallabies in November. His electric turn of pace and evasive footwork make him a handful for any defence. His running lines are also magnificent, and with inside knowledge of most of the France side, he would undoubtedly be one of Italy’s biggest weapons.

Inspirational captain Michele Lamaro was outstanding in all five Test matches in the Six Nations last year and is bound to be the same again in 2023. The 24-year-old doesn’t look out of place for a second carrying the captain’s armband despite the world-class standard of his predecessors. Cliches exist for a reason, and Lamaro is a perfect example of leading from the front and keeping a level head for a side notorious for playing with a fiery passion. He is far from just a superb leader of men and came close last year to breaking the record for the most tackles in a Six Nations campaign (89), making 86, including 17 from 18 in the victory over Wales.

There are several rising stars in the Italian set-up, but one who is beginning to stamp his mark as a force in Test rugby is second-rower Niccolo Cannone. The Benetton lock has made a habit of breaking through URC defences and scoring magnificent tries, and his work rate is outstanding. It’s not all flash for the 24-year-old who thrives in the nitty gritty part of the job in clearing out rucks and thundering into tackles.

It’s difficult not to immediately mention France’s superstar scrum-half Antoine Dupont. Les Bleus‘ captain is a freak of nature and, according to his teammates, unworldly, earning him the nickname ‘The Martian’. The two-time Player of the Championship is an insane talent in all facets of the game and is incredibly ambidextrous with his kicking, with his support lines another highlight of his game. A scrum-half is usually central to a team’s performance, but Dupont takes his influence on France to another level.

The French backs are often lauded for their performances, but there are several superstars in their pack to choose from, but you could argue that the return of Paul Willemse will please Galthie the most. The powerful second-rower featured in all five games last year en route to the Grand Slam but sustained an injury ruling him out of the remainder of the year. A brutal presence at the rucks, in mauls, tackles and carries, France never lacks grunt with Willemse on the pitch.

An absentee from the Grand Slam team returns to Rugby’s Greatest Championship this weekend with Charles Ollivon packing down against Italy. When the flanker took over the captaincy in 2020, he quickly established himself as one of the premiere flankers in world rugby, and he will keen to get back to those heights again. An insanely athletic player, Ollivon ticks all the boxes for a world-class flanker and some extras. His lineout prowess puts some Test quality locks to shame, his work rate is off the charts, and he is a force with the ball in hand.

Main head-to-head

This week’s battle is between the two defensive captains of the respective sides.

Juan Brex has been a mainstay in the Italian starting line-up since his debut, and rightly so. The 30-year-old is an intelligent midfielder who runs sharp attacking lines and comfortably distributes the ball to the Azzurri’s attacking weapons.

However, Brex’s best attributes are on defence, where he makes sharp defensive reads to nullify the opposition’s attacks. Italy’s best tactic for stopping the likes of Damian Penaud could be denying them any attacking ball, a job that will rely heavily on Brex.

Gael Fickou provides the same for France, leading Shaun Edwards’ impressive defensive structure on the pitch. Remarkably, Fickou has done the job superbly from inside centre, outside centre and the wing.

The most experienced player in the squad, Fickou is as crucial as Dupont to the side both on attack and in defence. His attacking qualities often go unnoticed, but he regularly gets over the advantage or sends a teammate through a gap. An outstanding talent whose performance will have a significant influence on the final result of the match.


France are clear favourites to emerge victorious, and rightly so. Galthie’s side should sweep the Italians away with their game sharper in all departments. Dusting off the cobwebs and realigning as a group is likely the biggest challenge France have, and if they find holes in the Azzurri defence early on in the fixture, it could turn into a high-scoring game for one side. The Italians might be able to keep the scoreline down in the first half, but ultimately, they will come undone in the second. France by more than 15.

Previous results

2022: France won 37-10 in Paris
France won 50-10 in Rome
France won 36-5 in Paris
France won 35-22 in Paris
France won 47-19 in Paris
France won 25-14 in Rome
2018: France won 34-17 in Marseille
France won 40-18 in Rome
France won 23-21 in Paris

The teams

Italy: 15 Ange Capuozzo, 14 Pierre Bruno, 13 Juan Ignacio Brex, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Tommaso Menoncello, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Lorenzo Cannone, 7 Michele Lamaro (c), 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 Niccolo’ Cannone, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Giamoco Nicotera, 1 Danilo Fischetti
Replacments: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Federico Zani, 18 Pietro Ceccarelli, 19 Edoardo Iachizzi, 20 Giovanni Pettinelli, 21 Manuel Zuliani, 22 Alessandro Fusco, 23 Edoardo Padovani

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Yoram Moefana, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c), 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Anthony Jelonch, 5 Paul Williams, 4 Thibault Flament, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacments: 16 Gaëtan Barlot, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Romain Taofifénua, 20 Thomas Lavault, 21 Seckou Macalou, 22 Nolann Le Garrec, 23 Mathieu Jalibert

Date: Sunday, February 5
Venue: Stadio Olympico, Rome
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Matthew Carley (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (RA), Jordan Way (RA)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)

READ MORE: England v Scotland: Six Nations preview as new era under Steve Borthwick to begin with narrow victory