Date: 4th February 2012
Time: 14:30 kick off
Venue: Stade de France
Referee: Nigel Owens
Les Bleus last five matches make for very interesting reading; a loss to New Zealand, a loss to Tonga, victory over England, victory over Wales before the loss to New Zealand in the World Cup final. Erratic at best, but after their brave performance in the final, and given the retention of the majority of their World Cup squad, France are favourites for this year’s Six Nations.
Italy are likely to still be on a high from their highly impressive victory over France in the last Six Nations, as well as encouraging performances against both Ireland and Wales. Senior members of the squad such as Segio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni will do their best to forget Italy’s relatively poor performances at the World Cup, and youngsters such as Giovanbattista Venditti and Edoardo Gori will be eager to show that not only do they belong on this stage, but that they can take Italy to the next level.
All Eyes On: Wesley Fofana & Martin Castrogiovanni
The one debutant in blue comes with a big reputation, given that no one has beaten more defenders in the Top 14, or scored more tries. Fofana will combine with his club captain Aurélien Rougerie in the centres, and not only has the physicality to be an effective defender down the 10/12 channel, but has such nimble feet and easy acceleration that he will leave Italy chasing shadows.
Martin Castrogiovanni will be the focus of a lot of attention when the Azzurri meet Les Bleus this weekend. A dominant scrummager, Castrogiovanni is arguably the key component in the Italian scrum’s attempts to exert control over the French pack. If Italy are to pull off another unexpected victory over the French, then their set piece will need to be at 110%, and whilst this is easier said than done against a powerful French unit, the experience of the Italian forwards, not least so Castrogiovanni, will be highly beneficial.
Head to Head: Louis Picamoles v Sergio Parisse
Any player who can keep Imanol Harinordoquy out of the side must be doing something right. Louis Picamoles has emerged as the main man for France at number 8 after a string of consistently excellent performances for Toulouse. A dynamic, powerful runner in the loose, Picamoles offers a great threat off the back of the scrum as well.
Parisse will be hoping that his experience and consistency helps him come out on top of a difficult match up in Picamoles. Parisse’s work at the breakdown is arguably superior to Picamoles’ and will be just as important in slowing down the French ball as it will in giving the Italian backs quick ball.
Although I’m sure at the end of the 80 minutes the one thing that will not be able to be questioned will be the Italian player’s effort, this is unlikely going to be enough to secure them another priceless victory over the French. It is conceivable that the Italian forwards will be able to gain parity or even superiority over the French forwards, the lack of experience and cutting edge in the backs may prevent them from capitalising on this. This match, like the majority of this Six Nations, will most likely prove to be a learning curve for this fresh looking Italian backline. France by 14 points. AS
I’m expecting France to make a real statement against Italy, mainly as an apology to their long-suffering home fans for their near internal combustion at the Rugby World Cup. Their 22 is the strongest around this weekend by a country mile. There are tries all over their backline. This could be a real pasting, making last year’s embarrassment of losing to the Azzurri all but forgotten. France by 25. BC
by Ben Coles & Alex Shaw