Italy v France - teams and prediction
SIX NATIONS ROUND ONE: France will be counting on the dynamic form of star scrumhalf Antoine Dupont to energise their campaign, starting on Saturday against Italy in Rome.
The 24-year-old, the Six Nations player of the tournament last year, has been on an upward trajectory since making his France debut in 2017 against Italy in the Stadio Olimpico.
France were runners-up in 2020 – with the same number of points as champions England, who they beat in Paris, but with a poorer points difference.
Dupont’s athleticism, running 249 metres with the ball in hand in the competition and with a championship-high 12 offloads, lifted France even though they missed out on their first trophy since 2010.
On Saturday, flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert will partner Dupont with Toulouse teammate Romain Ntamack, the top scorer in last year’s tournament, out with a double jaw fracture.
“It’s been 10 years since there was a French victory, so there’s a lot of desire,” said Dupont, as the three-time World Cup runners-up look to get back winning to lay the groundwork for the 2023 World Cup at home.
“I joined Toulouse like the French team during a generation change,” said the player from the south-west, who arrived at the Top 14 side in 2017, the year he won the first of his 27 France caps.
“Periods of transition are always complicated. The renewal in the French team, whether the staff or the players, has done a lot of good.
“We were able to start again on a healthy basis.”
The arrival of head coach Fabien Galthie and a new coaching staff has pushed the team in the right direction, Dupont believes.
“I’ve never seen such a large staff. Almost as many [coaches] as players!” he said.
“It’s matching what other nations are doing, which is to surround themselves with specialists and skills.
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“Of course, that’s not everything, but it brings with it a lot of keys the players can use on the pitch.
“The idea is to achieve continuity over the next few years to arrive with experience and maturity at the World Cup.”
He pointed out that South Africa lost to Italy three years before winning the last World Cup in Japan.
“If you look at the last world champions, three years before the World Cup no-one would have bet a euro on them.”
France is favourited against Italy, who earned a 15th wooden spoon last year and have won just three times in 44 meetings with ‘Les Bleus’, most recently in February 2013.
Franco Smith’s ‘Azzurri’ are also a side in transition with the departure of veterans including emblematic captain Sergio Parisse. They have an average age of 20.
“We’re continuing to introduce new generations,” said South African Smith.
The France squad, cut to 31 in a bid to reduce the danger of COVID-19 cases linked to players moving back and forth to their clubs, are in a training camp in Nice.
Amid the uncertainty, their participation only received the green light on Tuesday, French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu confirming the championship would go ahead “in a bio-secure bubble”.
Players to watch
For Italy: The inclusion of Argentina-born centre Ignacio Brex will win his first cap for Italy, after the 28-year-old had previously played for his country of birth’s second string (Argentina XV) and Under-20 teams. Azzurri coach Franco Smith also gave a first start to No.8 Michele Lamaro, who has two caps and will play alongside Johan Meyer and Sebastian Negri. Gloucester scrumhalf Stephen Varney and Treviso flyhalf Paolo Garbisi return to a squad which has an average of just 20.
For France: Brice Dulin and Gabin Villiere, who both impressed during the year-end Nations Cup, were named in the starting line-up. Dulin, 30, made his Six Nations debut against England in 2014, but he had been out in the cold since 2017 until his call-up for the year-end Nations Cup when, because of contractual obligations with the French clubs, Galthie was forced to dig beyond his regular pool of players. The La Rochelle fullback took his chance, playing in the Final – which France lost narrowly to England – and retains his place ahead of Anthony Bouthier who wore the shirt in the last Six Nations. Toulon wing Villiere also impressed in his two Nations Cups starts against Italy and England and keeps his place on the left wing ahead of Damian Penaud, who is on the bench. With Romain Ntamack still out with a double jaw fracture, Matthieu Jalibert retains his place at flyhalf.
Head to head
The battle of the bantams, scrumhalves Stephen Varney (Italy) and Antoine Dupont (France), will make for great entertainment in what is expected to be a one-sided contest. The Azzurri’s South African import, Johan Meyer, will be in a bruising contest with French captain Charles Ollivon. And Italy’s Argentinean import, Ignacio Brex, will be in for a baptism of fire against the highly-rated French No.12 Gael Fickou in their midfield battle.
Last 10 encounters
@rugby365com: France by 18 points
Italy: 15 Jacopo Trulla; 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Ignacio Brex, 11 Montanna Ioane; 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney; 8 Michele Lamaro, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Sebastian Negri; 5 David Sisi, 4 Marco Lazzaroni; 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi (captain), 1 Cherif Traore
Replacements: 16 Gianmarco Lucchesi, 17 Danilo Fischetti, 18 Giosue Zilocchi, 19 Niccolo Cannone, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Maxime Mbanda, 22 Guglielmo Palazzani, 23 Carlo Canna
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Arthur Vincent, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Gabin Villiere, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (captain), 6 Dylan Cretin, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Dorian Aldeghiri, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Anthony Jeronch, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Louis Carbonel, 23 Damian Penaud.
Date: Saturday, February 6
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Kick-off: 15.15 (14.15 GMT)
Expected weather: Mild with plenty of sunshine. High of 20°C, low of 13°C
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant referees: Mike Adamson (Scotland), Christophe Ridley (England)
TMO: Karl Dickson (England)
* Additional reporting by @rugby365com