Preview: France v Italy

Date published: September 18 2015

Four years after falling desperately close during a tumultuous campaign, France are back hoping to end their wait for a maiden World Cup title.

Les Bleus are far and away the best team never to win the World Cup, having three times reached the final and only once failed to make the final four.

In 2011 they combined the sublime and the ridiculous, losing a pool game to Tonga and almost falling to 14-man Wales, but also cruising past England before giving New Zealand everything they could handle at their untouchable Eden Park home.

Saturday's clash at Twickenham against Italy will feature very few survivors from Auckland, only Thierry Dusautoir and Pascal Papé started four years ago of the run-on side, with replacements Nicolas Mas and Morgan Parra having also started in that game.

The other man involved four years ago was referee Craig Joubert, and it's debatable whether les Bleus will be keen to see him back after a controversial performance in New Zealand.

Opposite them is an Italy team that has gone backwards in recent years, with Jacques Brunel this week accused of listening only to a select group of leaders.

Chief among them is Sergio Parisse, but the inspirational captain is missing through injury, and if this proves to be a quarter-final decider, the Azzurri will surely miss their number eight.

While Italy's recent record has been poor, it would be unfair to place all the blame at Brunel's feet. He has taken charge of the national team during a period in which Italy's domestic sides have slumped, with Treviso's financial problems having turned them from Pro12 play-off contenders into cannon fodder.

Zebre aren't much better, so it's no surprise that Italy's talent pool is looking rather thin, and it will be up to a few experienced veterans to carry them as far as they can.

Italy's strength remains up front, despite Brunel's best efforts with the backs, but unfortunately for them, the same can be said of France.

With an unsettled Italian half-back pairing, and an uninspiring French one, tries might be in short supply. The intensity certainly won't be lacking though, and appalling as France have been for the last four years, they know how to step it up at a World Cup.

Players to watch: 

For France: Les Bleus look to be building a formidable pack, but spent the World Cup warm-ups looking short of ideas with ball in hand. After getting the nod from Philippe Saint-André, it's time for Frédéric Michalak to repay his coach. At his best, Michalak can be devastating on the front foot, but he has very little experience with most of this three-quarter line.

For Italy: Martin Castrogiovanni used all his experience to milk some penalties out of Wales at scrum-time a fortnight ago. The veteran tighthead might be entering the twilight of his career, but he will have to put Eddy Ben Arous under pressure at the set-piece to give Italy a shot.

Head-to-head: With Sergio Parisse absent, there is big pressure on Samuela Vunisa to step up. In the ball-carrying department, the Fijian-born number eight should provide plenty of go-forward. The biggest difference for France since the Six Nations has been the return of Louis Picamoles at number eight. With their conservative game plan, France will again rely on the Toulouse man to drive them over the gainline time and again.

Team news: Both sides are without one key player, with France missing centre Wesley Fofana after he failed to recover from a thigh injury. He's replaced in the starting lineup by Alexandre Dumoulin, while Yoann Maestri is back in the second row after missing the final warm-up game against Scotland.

Italy's absentee is even more damaging, with skipper and star player Sergio Parisse recovering from a leg operation where he had fluid drained after taking a knock against Wales. He is replaced in the team by Samuela Vunisa, while Jacques Brunel has also tweaked the backline, pairing up Andrea Masi and Michele Campagnaro in a new-look midfield.

Previous results:

2015: France won 29-0 in Rome
2014: France won 30-10 in Paris
2013: Italy won 23-18 in Rome
2012: France won 30-12 in Paris
2011: Italy won 22-21 in Rome
2010: France won 46-20 in Paris
2009: France won 50-8 in Rome
2008: France won 25-13 in Paris
2007: France won 39-3 in Rome
2006: France won 37-12 in Paris
2005: France won 56-13 in Rome
2004: France won 25-0 in Paris

Prediction: While there is talent in both backlines, neither seem to be able to put it together consistently. The French pack has looked more impressive recently though, and with Sergio Parisse absent, they should have the edge again. France by 8!

The teams:

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Nicolas Mas, 19 Bernard le Roux, 20 Alexandre Flanquart, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Gaël Fickou.

Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (c), 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Simone Favaro, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Enrico Bacchin

Date: Saturday, September 19
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 20:00 local 
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

By Paul Eddison