Rugby Union

Italy vs France: Five Six Nations talking points ahead of Saturday’s Test

Italy host France at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday (kick-off 12.30pm) in the final round of this year’s Six Nations.

After being demolished in Dublin, France will seek a renaissance in Rome against an Italy side who will be just as happy to see the back of this year’s tournament.

While Ireland kept their faint title hopes alive courtesy of a 26-14 win, those held by Les Bleus were washed away in the opening round. Italy will be smarting after their 57-14 loss to England, but for both sides, Saturday’s Test offers the chance to end on a high. Ahead of their 41st encounter, here are some talking points…

Italy crave sense of belonging

It has been another bleak Six Nations campaign for whipping boys Italy, who, after a 21st successive defeat in the competition, must be wondering if their presence is merited.

Sides from the Pacific Islands such as Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga continue to struggle for investment, and yet Italy show no signs of improvement given their comparative financial backing.

Two years ago, Italy refused to ruck at Twickenham, so ambition through attacking rugby is at least a movement towards the image they want of their country’s team – not viewed as a Tier-Two nation, but palpably not good enough to be classed as Tier One.

It will take many more years – and a movement away from a stance redolent of self-interest from rugby’s top table towards such underdogs – for true progress to be made, but a sense of belonging can be restored if they capitalise on France’s latest state of disarray.

Mounting pressure on Brunel

Mutiny and player revolt has never been far from the lips of reporters close to the French camp over the past couple of months; and while the Scotland victory pointed to shoots of recovery, this has been an awful Six Nations campaign for Jacques Brunel, whose team have often looked bereft of ideas and a clear structure.

The cracks were apparent when Sebastien Vahaamahina wasn’t aware he was the captain after Guilhem Guirado had been replaced against Wales – and that doziness has spread to set-plays, clinically exposed by Ireland.

French rugby clubs are known for having the national team in the palm of their hands when it comes to selection, but it feels as though Brunel’s future will be decided by how his senior players respond in Italy.

Should the likes of Guirado, Louis Picamoles, and Mathieu Bastareaud produce another no-show, the head coach’s fate could be sealed before they return to Paris.

Importance of a good start

France arrived at the Aviva Stadium last weekend resurgent following their win over Scotland, but that sense of optimism evaporated when Ireland’s captain Rory Best crossed over after just two minutes.

Italy are guaranteed the Wooden Spoon and to finish at the bottom of the championship for a 14th time in 20 years, and their latest setback saw them concede 30 points by half-time against England – only the fourth time in Five and Six Nations history that England had scored as many points by the interval.

Head coach Conor O’Shea remained upbeat afterwards, saying: “I thought with the ball we caused problems. We never ever stopped. It would have been easy to throw in the white flag, but we didn’t. We could have come away with four tries today.”

Such optimism is hard to share when placed against the cold, hard facts – Italy haven’t won in this competition for four years – but they should at least have players in their natural positions to go alongside their abundance of spirit and endeavour, after ending up with a scrum-half on the wing, and a loose-head prop in the back-row at HQ.

What do these sides have to be optimistic about?

If France are at their best, Italy should be no match for them. However, the paucity in performance that has led to Brunel’s side being labelled inconsistent is now becoming the norm. What positives are there that will make people tune in for the curtain-raiser on Saturday?

An overhaul is needed for France, but there are others who, in time, can use this challenging tournament as a turning point. Brunel has at his disposal a cycle coming to an end, combined with several who are at the start of their respective journeys at this level.

The likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Demba Bamba, and Thomas Ramos need the right people around them to guide them through a difficult introduction to elite rugby.

As so often with France, the potential is there, but calls for relegation to be introduced tells you what people think of Italy. After all, Georgia lost 28-17 to England last autumn.

What Italy won’t lack against the French is desire and commitment – and with Sergio Parisse set for his potential Six Nations farewell, a victory would be the perfect send off following 14 years at Stade Francais.

France, be warned…

A waft of resignation will reign on the streets of Rome in the build-up to this dead rubber; but the last time Italy conceded 50-plus points in defeat to England, their response was to beat France 22-21 – back in March 2011.

Of those French players who started eight years ago, only Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard survive in Brunel’s rabble, while Guirado came off the bench.

Parisse will have fond memories of that emotional win – a first over France in the Six Nations – and Brunel was of course in the opposite dug-out for Italy’s most recent victory (23-18) over Les Bleus two years later.

Now he plots a 22nd straight defeat of his former employees, fresh from his side having just 11 per cent territorial gain in the first 40 minutes in Dublin.

After L’Equipe described the Irish debacle as “The Shipwrecked”, pride must be restored. The loss to Joe Schmidt’s side represented a starting point for Ireland in a World Cup year, and a victory over Italy should act as the same for France.

Team news

Italy: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Marco Zanon, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Jake Polledri, 6 Abraham Steyn, 5 Federico Ruzza, 4 David Sisi, 3 Tiziano Pasquali, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti

Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Simone Ferrari, 19 Alessandro Zanni, 20 Sebastian Negri, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Luca Sperandio

France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont; 1 Etienne Falgoux, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 3 Demba Bamba, 4 Felix Lambey, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Yacouba Camara, 8 Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Arthur Iturria, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Thomas Ramos.

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