France opened their Six Nations campaign with a win – Italy, a defeat. France are at home for the second week in a row – Italy are away again. France are third in the Six Nations table, just behind Ireland and Wales on points difference – Italy are fifth, just ahead of Scotland.
So, why should Philippe Saint-André be slightly more worried than his opposite number Jacques Brunel? After all, it seems he has everything in his favour going into this match. And it’s unlikely they’ll lose.
Let’s be honest, France were lucky against England. Saint-André admitted as much. They were too timid, he said, lacklustre at the lineout; they also missed too many tackles and too many kicks.
They raced into a 16-6 lead inside 22 minutes. According to rugby lore, if you let France rule the first quarter, you are doomed. But England destroyed that myth on Saturday. After that opening-quarter blitz, they stayed calm and wrestled back control with a combination of sheer guts, well-drilled organisation, brute strength and low cunning.
At the death, though, they lost it again, and allowed France to unleash one last, desperate, wonderful, match-winning move. England did everything right in Paris last weekend… except win. They dominated 57 of the game’s 80 minutes.
Saint-André has had work to do this week, then. He’s brought in Castres’ Ibrahim Diarra as cover for the injured Antoine Burban, while Maxime Medard, who played the full 80 minutes against England, has been released back to Toulouse.
Medard’s omission leaves France down a recognised winger, but in his stead comes promising Stade Français fullback Hugo Bonneval, meaning Saint-André can continue his favourite selection policy – playing players out of position.
Italy have been soaking up the plaudits of last week’s glorious defeat at the Millennium Stadium as Jacques Brunel’s side proved there’s more – much more – to them than dogged defence and snipes in the tight.
The fact is, they rattled a much stronger unit, full of Lions stars and big names. They can do it again.
Brunel is a coaching wizard – of that there can be no doubt. It’s unfair to compare the Heineken Cup to the Six Nations. But consider this: when Treviso lost 48-0 to Ulster in Belfast before Christmas, they boasted nine of the Azurri squad that impressed against Wales last Saturday. A week later, Zebre lost 64-3 at Saracens with five of Saturday’s squad in their starting XV and two more on the bench.
The missing factor in all of that is Sergio Parisse – but surely not even he can make that much difference. So a hefty chunk of it must come from Brunel.
All eyes on
After his performance last week, everyone will be watching for Italy’s outside centre Michele Campagnaro. He marked his Six Nations debut by flooring Scott Williams with one early tackle, and his two second half tries were the least his powerful yet composed match deserved.
This week, he and his new centre partner Gonzalo Garcia line up opposite a French midfield that has a lot to prove. Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud were very effectively contained by England. It was pretty much job done – at least until 19-year-old Gael Fickou came on and ruined everything.
Brunel will have noticed…
Head to head: Louis Picamoles v Sergio Parisse
Sergio Parisse was nothing less than remarkable against Wales. He will be well known to his French opponents, of course, as he plies his club trade with Stade Francais. But he was never far from the action and his clash of the titans with Toby Faletau was a highlight of the game.
Expect his battle with Picamoles to be just as intense. The French number 8 put in another strong, roving display against England, despite the improved attentions of Billy Vunipola. The pair meet regularly in the Top 14, so know each other well.
Wizard he may be, but Jacques Brunel probably won’t be able to conjure up a shock win at Stade de France – and with their only other away game in the tournament this year being in Dublin, they probably won’t be celebrating only their second away win in their brief Six Nations history this year.
But, after their performance against Wales, Six Nations tickets are in high demand, and it’s a safe bet there will be scares along the way for the France. And England. And Scotland. And Ireland. France by 10.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images