By Tadhg Peavoy
Italy welcome France to the Stadio Olimpico hoping for a second win in three years over their illustrious continental neighbours.
In 2011, the Azzurri stunned Les Bleus with a second-half comeback that displayed what the Italian national rugby team hopes to become: a side with a behemoth pack, backed up by a silky smooth backline that can combine to beautiful effect.
Italy’s pack has some of the leading lights of world rugby in Martin Castogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni in the front row, backed up by Sergio Parisse in at number eight. That quartet alone will provide the foundations for a battle of the packs in Rome.
France will meet Italy head-on up front with a quality pack of their own. The front row is anchored by Nicolas Mas and Dimitri Szarzewski, with Yannick Forestier claiming his second cap at loosehead prop.
Captain Pascal Papé is a solid number four, while the back row of Thierry Dusautoir, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Louis Picamoles is superb.
While Italy are likely to break even in the scrums and lineout, one would have to think France will be the better side at the breakdown, displaying too much experience and tenacity. With ball-in-hand, Picamoles is one of my picks to excel in that facet in this tournament.
In the backlines, on paper, there is only one winner: France.
Veteran out-half Frédéric Michalak and new first choice scrum-half Maxime Machenaud look a very good pairing. And with Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc on the bench, France have wonderful strength in depth in the glamour roles.
How Italy would crave such options. Jacques Brunel pairs Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera at half-back; both are players that have only looked international class in fits and starts in the past. If Italy are to have any chance of a win on Sunday, they must perform.
Outside number 10, France ooze class. Benjamin Fall, Maxime Mermoz, Florian Fritz and Wesley Fofana are rock solid in defence and can produce moments of magic in attack.
Italy’s shining light in the back three is 2011 Six Nations Player of the Tournament Andrea Masi. His clever lines of running and speed are first rate and from them Italy’s best moves often stem.
If he’s on form, Giovambattista Venditti, Tommaso Benvenuti, Alberto Sgarbi and Luke McClean will feed off him.
While rugby fans would dearly love to see Italy turn over Les Bleus, the likelihood is slim to none.
France would appear to have too much quality all over the pitch and are likely to dominate Italy up front before spreading wide at every opportunity to their backs.
Outside the pack, it’s hard to envisage Italy gaining the upper hand other than in passing stretches of the game.
Orquera doesn’t appear to have the vision, consistency or skill out of hand to guide a quite frankly average back division to victory over one of the world’s best teams.
Opposite him he faces one of the most experienced and creative fly-halves in the world game in Michalak. If his form continues from the autumn internationals, he will play an expansive game that brings Mermoz and Fritz into the match at all the right moments.
Fofana has been the most exciting back player to emerge from France in years and every time he gets the ball there is the feeling that something is going to happen.
With Michalak and Fofana on form, backed by a solid display from Huget under the high ball and on the counter, I can see Italy struggling against a France side that looks to have found its feet under Philippe Saint-André.
Italy like being the underdog and they come into this game with no pressure. Nobody expects them to beat France and unburdened by expectation, they can play with freedom.
If the pack produces one of their better performances, then Italy will be in the game. But their backline still fails to get the pulse racing and if their number nine to 15 can bring them victory on Sunday, it would be the upset of the tournament.
France to win by 12 points.
Italy v France, RBS 6 Nations, Stadio Olimpico, Sunday 3 February, kick-off 15:00:
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi 14 Giovambattista Venditti 13 Tommaso Benvenuti 12 Alberto Sgarbi 11 Luke McLean 10 Luciano Orquera 9 Tobias Botes 8 Sergio Parisse (captain) 7 Simone Favaro 6 Alessandro Zanni 5 Francesco Minto 4 Quintin Geldenhuys 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon 17 Alberto De Marchi 18 Lorenzo Cittadini 19 Antonio Pavanello 20 Paul Derbyshire 21 Edoardo Gori 22 Kristopher Burton 23 Gonzalo Canale.
France: 15 Yoann Huget 14 Wesley Fofana 13 Florian Fritz 12 Maxime Mermoz 11 Benjamin Fall 10 Frédéric Michalak 9 Maxime Machenaud 8 Louis Picamoles 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo 6 Thierry Dusautoir 5 Yoann Maestri 4 Pascal Papé (captain) 3 Nicolas Mas 2 Dimitri Szarzewski 1 Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser 17 Vincent Debaty 18 Luc Ducalcon 19 Romain Taofifenua 20 Damien Chouly 21 Morgan Parra 22 Francois Trinh-Duc 23 Mathieu Bastareaud.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wal).