Preview: Italy v France

Date published: March 13 2015

Would it be an exaggeration to suggest Italy are the favourites to beat France in their Six Nations clash in Rome on Sunday?

In eras past, such a statement would have seemed laughable. Times have changed.

Low on confidence and short on ideas, a trip to Stadio Olimpico to face an Italian side bubbling with energy could not have come at a worse time for les Bleus.

And a cold hard look at France's record on the road suggests that things might very well get worse this weekend.

The French have won only one of their last dozen away games in all Tests: 19-17 against Scotland in a dire match at Murrayfield in Round Four last season.

Not convinced yet? Then consider that the last five encounters between these two teams have all been won by the home side on the day, with Azzurri gunning for a third successive home win over the XV de France this weekend.

Only once before – in 2007 – have the Italians claimed back-to-back Six Nations victories in the same season, but after hijacking a Scotland team that no one thought they could beat in Edinburgh last time out, Sergio Parisse and co. will certainly fancy their chances in front of the Tifosi.

Last year, a blistering start to the second half saw France win 30-10 in Paris. After a try-less opening 40 minutes punctuated by below-par kicking, Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana and Hugo Bonneval each scored inside 12 minutes to blow Italy away. None of those players will feature for France this weekend, as the seemingly endless turnover continues.

Incredibly, there are only four survivors from the French starting XV that faced Italy last year – Yoann Huget, Bernard le Roux, Yoann Maestri and Nicolas Mas, with the latter making his first appearance in this year's tournament.

To be fair to Philippe Saint-André, some of the eight changes made were clearly needed after the failure against Wales, and injuries have forced the French selectors to make more alterations than they probably would have liked.

But the fact that Noa Nakaitaci is the 82nd player used in PSA era, already matching the number used by Marc Lièvremont during his much-criticised four-year reign, is telling.

This is a team without a clear identity, without a clearly defined style or gameplan, without direction.

Many of the changes are interesting though. Damien Chouly wasn't delivering the goods at number eight but whether little-known Loann Goujon will do any better remains to be seen.

An all-new midfield also worth keeping an eye on. Not long ago, Gaël Fickou and Maxime Mermoz were very much out of favour. But the ball is almost certain to move through the hands a lot smoother and more frequently than the previous combination of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud, who are both supremely talented individuals, but their combination failed to create space for each other or their wings.

Mermoz is very good at putting his teammates into space and Fickou has the feet to be able to use that space without simply bulldozing forward. France's best chances of finally playing some exciting rugby could well revolve around these two.

For Italy, a gloomy outlook at the start of the tournament is suddenly looking much rosier. Most pundits wrote the squadra azzurra off before their visit to Murrayfield based on the lack of star names and experience. We clearly spoke to soon because even without many of the names that have provided the backbone of the Italian side for years (Masi, Zanni, Bortolami, Castrogiovanni, Bergamasco etc) they were able to claim a rare win on the road.

Such is the confidence in the likes of Dario Chistolini, that Castrogiovanni has not been recalled, even though he is available.

There is a worry around the fitness of fly-halves Tommaso Allan and Kelly Haimona, who both suffered injury scares this week resulting in Luciano Orquera being called up as cover.

Confidence is a funny thing, and an Italian side full of self belief and backed by the support of their fans – in rainy conditions – will present France with a very tricky assignment.

Players to watch:

For Italy: Outstanding against Scotland, Joshua Furno is one of the form players of the tournament. Much of Italy's approach revolves around their set piece and Furno is their number one lineout target. As ever, Italian fortunes will largely depend of the reliability of Kelly Haimona. The Kiwi fly-half has the worst record off the kicking tee in the Championship this season and suffered a "genital trauma" during training on Wednesday (ouch). Allan hasn't had much game time and has been struggling with a twisted ankle leaving Haimona with the responsibility of keeping the scoreboard ticking.

For France: Is this the last-chance saloon for Nicolas Mas? Once the cornerstone of an all-conquering French scrum, the changes in the scrum engagement protocols have seen the Montpellier prop's career nosedive. The 34-year-old has been called in to bring his experience, but if he doesn't produce, his first Test of the year could be the last. Clermont's Noa Nakaitaci will become the first Fijian-born French international. The 24-year-old former Fiji U20 wing scored two tries for France against the Blues in Auckland in 2013 but will win his first Test cap on Sunday.

Head-to-head: French newbie Loann Goujon faces a stern test of his Test credentials against Sergio Parisse, arguably the most gifted European rugby player of his generation. While 25-year-old Goujon makes his first start, the Azzurri skipper will win his 112th cap. France will look to Goujon to be the powerful ball carrier they have so missed in the first three rounds, but he will have to show intelligence too in his ability to read the game if he is to compete with a true rugby genius. The Frenchman has started just six games for his club – La Rochelle – in the Top 14 this season and he hasn't started at number eight since September, so many have questioned his involvement in the national team. By contrast, Parisse has carried the ball more than any other forward in this season’s tournament with 38 carries so far. We'll find out soon enough if Goujon is good enough for Test rugby.

Previous results:
2014: France won 31-10, Stade de France, Paris
2013: Italy won 23-13, 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

Prediction: A very tough one to call because IF France finally click, they should win comfortably. But that has rarely happened of late and Italy's record at home cannot be ignored. We're going to be bold and say Italy by four.

The teams:

Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Samuela Vunisa, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Barbini, 20 Guglielmo Palazzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Enrico Bacchin.

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Sébastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud

Date: Sunday, March 15
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Weather: 13 C. Rain.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)