Six Nations France v Italy Preview
All the team news, battle areas and TV details you need for the Six Nations match between France and Italy in Marseille – it's a Friday night clash to savour
Six Nations France v Italy Preview
French rugby has been wanting a shake-up and this game has it in spades: the first championship match they’ve staged outside Paris, a seldom-seen Friday-night billing, and 11 new faces in the match-day squad. Well, no point doing things by half.
France and Italy meet at the 67,000-capacity Stade Velodrome in Marseille. Les Bleus have played Tests there sporadically – this will be their 12th visit this century – and Italy captain Sergio Parisse turned out there during the 2007 World Cup.
But it’s hard to overstate this match’s significance because after 184 Five/Six Nations home matches within the sanctuary of their capital, France are upping sticks more than 400 miles.
They should receive an outstanding reception and, for Italy in particular, coping with the local and vocal fervour represents a different challenge.
Both sides will hope it inspires them to new heights – and how they need something to draw on. The sides occupy the bottom two places in the table and are on chronic runs.
France are winless in their previous eight Tests, their last victory being that 20-18 steal at the death against Wales last March.
Only four France teams in history have suffered longer winless runs and three of those were in the early years of the national side’s existence. The only postwar France team to similarly struggle was the side of 1968-69, but they had a series against both New Zealand and South Africa in their 11-match barren run.
Italy, meanwhile, have lost their previous 14 championship games and defeat this weekend would be an unwanted record for the country.
Once again, there’s been a changing of the guard for France. Coach Jacques Brunel swung the axe after a swathe of players went out drinking after the second-round loss in Edinburgh.
Five of the excluded players, Remi Lamerat, Arthur Iturria, Anthony Belleau, Louis Picamoles and Jonathan Danty, were questioned as potential witnesses by police in connection with an alleged sexual assault. All were cleared of any wrongdoing but they’ve been punished as “they failed to respect their duty as international players”, according to an FFR statement.
Also omitted is wing Teddy Thomas, the tournament’s top try-scorer with three and the only Frenchman so far who’s looked capable of creating something out of nothing.
Centre Mathieu Bastareaud returns after completing a three-week ban for a homophobic slur. Benjamin Fall, Remy Grosso, Hugo Bonneval and Paul Gabrillagues also come into the line-up.
“Mathieu brings us his distinctive style of play and his experience,” said Brunel. “He seems to have taken on a new dimension (with Toulon).”
There’s a familiar look to the pack but, only three games into the tournament, not one back has started every time. The new faces include uncapped 20-year-old Lyon scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud, a replacement.
Paying the penalty
France made 253 tackles against Ireland in round one, a record for a Six Nations match. Only Johnny Sexton’s miracle kick denied them a shock victory, but against Scotland they subsided after Thomas’s first-half brace of tries.
Their on-field discipline has been appalling. Sebastien Vahaamahina’s reckless disregard of the offside laws against Ireland resurfaced in team-mates at Murrayfield. Baptiste Serin took out a cleaner at the ruck to give Greig Laidlaw the chance to make it 17-20, and the Scot was gifted more points when Iturria tackled Stuart McInally beyond the ruck (20-23).
By the time flanker Yacouba Camara strayed offside for Laidlaw’s sixth penalty (32-26), the game was up. Related: Scotland 32-26 France match report
Such laxity again in Marseille could open the door for Italy, who got within two points of France on their last trip to Paris two years ago.
BBC commentator Eddie Butler says: “Never before have Italy had such a good chance to win,” and one reason for Azzurri optimism is the improving fortunes of the country’s Guinness Pro14 sides, Benetton Treviso and Zebre.
Last year they managed just eight wins between them in 44 league matches, but this season they’ve shared 12 wins already and last weekend both triumphed on the road – Treviso at the Dragons and Zebre at Connacht.
Different sets of players, true, but there’s an underlying sense that Italian rugby is embarked on a healing process.
The likes of centre Tommaso Boni, fly-half Tommaso Allan and scrum-half Marcello Violi are catching the eye, and at the helm as always is skipper and No 8 Parisse, who Will Greenwood summed up when saying: “He’s one of those players, like Dallaglio, who could go in with a pub team and still think he could win the World Cup.”
Italy coach Conor O’Shea has the faith. “I believe very much in this group and in the path we are taking together,” he said.
“In Dublin in the first half we didn’t do what we expected, but it’s important for us this Friday to learn from our mistakes and show our game plan, show off our rugby throughout the game.
“For us this is a new opportunity. We must not think about France, focus on ourselves and I hope we can offer ourselves and our fans a performance to be proud of.”
Italy give flanker Maxime Mbanda his first start since last June and recall experienced hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini – another player prone to conceding soft penalties – and Andrea Lovotti. The visitors will do well to match the French scrum.
Greenwood was perhaps being only slightly facetious when he said on Sky’s The Offload programme: “Italy will go there with a sniff because they know, if you look at the past few years, that whenever France make a load of changes they tend to be garbage.”
Fly-half Lionel Beauxis returned to the fold at Murrayfield and in the six years since his previous cap, France had tried 26 different half-back combinations – a staggering figure. This lack of continuity in so crucial an area is being used to explain the regular Gallic downfalls. France haven’t even managed to score three tries in a match since the Italy game nearly a year ago.
But there’s truth in the cliché – you never truly know what to expect from France. Fifty years ago, they used 27 players in four games and won their first-ever Grand Slam. By rights, they should be disjointed against Italy. But, in only the eighth Six Nations match to take place on a Friday, perhaps they will provide some of the famous élan that has been missing for so long.
France Hugo Bonneval; Benjamin Fall, Mathieu Bastareaud, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Rémy Grosso; Lionel Beauxis, Maxime Machenaud; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Rabah Slimani, Paul Gabrillagues, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Marco Tauleigne.
Replacements: Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Romain Taofifenua, Galletier, Baptiste Couilloud, Francois Trinh-Duc, Gael Fickou.
Italy Matteo Minozzi; Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini; Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Andrea Lovotti, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Sebastian Negri, Maxime Mbanda, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Nicola Quaglio, Tiziano Pasquali, George Biagi, Federico Ruzza, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.
What time does France v Italy kick off?
Ireland v Wales, Friday 23 February, 8pm GMT, Stade Velodrome
Wayne Barnes is the man in the middle, assisted by Luke Pearce and John Lacey and with David Grashoff as TMO. They were on duty at last weekend’s Leicester v Harlequins game and it’s to be hoped they monitor the offside line a little more closely – in too many games, defences are infringing with impunity.
The TV Details
The game is live on the BBC.