By Tadhg Peavoy
The Franco-Italian clash in the Six Nations – the winner of which is awarded the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy - used to be a very predictable affair.
Italy would start strong and put France under huge pressure early on, giving early hints of an upset, before the Gallic juggernaut would crank up the gears and crush their Latin opponents in the second half.
However, since 2011, it is Italy who have held the upper hand in this tie.
The Azzurri have won twice, and have broken the period of domination Les Bleus held over them since 1997, when Italy recorded their only other victory in the history of the clash.
This year, Italy’s challenge is to maintain this rich vein of form. If they can record a third victory in four, it will represent their first set of back-to-back victories over the French.
It will also be the first time they have beaten Les Bleus on French soil since that win in 1997.
All in all, if they can pull off the feat of victory, it will go down as one of Italian rugby’s finest days.
The million-dollar question is can they do it? The answer? Possibly, but you wouldn’t bet your house on it.
Last week against Wales the Italians delivered a solid performance, contesting the breakdown and set-pieces with the Dragons admirably, and making it difficult for the defending champions to grind into their usual effective gears.
But in truth, going in 17-3 down at half-time, Italy were always going to struggle to get back into the tie. But that they did through two second half tries from Six Nations debutant Michele Campagnaro.
And it was in that second half period that Italy showed what they are capable of. They maintained their grittiness up front and in the set piece, but allied it to an ability to spread the ball wide, use space, and hit the line with speed.
In addition, they had the tactical awareness to realise that the place to attack Wales was in the pockets behind the wingers.
To have a chance against France, they need to replicate what they did in the second half last week, and add further nuance and wrinkles to their game, to catch the French off guard.
France were good, bad and brilliant last week against England. They were good when they capitalised on poor England defending to claim two opportunistic tries early in the game.
They were bad when they managed to throw away a 13-point lead and put themselves on the verge of defeat. And they were at their brilliant best when they won the game with a scintillating late try from Gael Fickou.
Nobody was really sure what we were going to get from the French this season, then, almost as though they were trying to conform to stereotype, they delivered another performance that has them hard to peg.
Are they going to continue the tournament as the very ordinary looking side that England dominated in many areas across the pitch for a large patch of the tie at Stade de France.
Or are they going to light up the tournament with a brilliant brand of 15-man rugby, like they did in the early and late periods of the game against England; possibly a combination of both.
The jury is still out. But one thing that was demonstrated in Paris last week is that Philippe Saint-Andre’s team are capable of something quite special when they mesh.
The pack’s performance was outstanding both at the breakdown and in defence, with Yannick Nyanga delivering one of his best ever performances for his country at blindside flanker. He was literally everywhere, galloping with ball-in-hand, securing the breakdown, and tackling across the park.
Louis Picamoles wasn’t far behind him with his firebrand carrying ability, while Pascal Papé led by example in the second row. Dimitri Szarzewski also made a huge impact following his arrival from the replacements’ bench, adding speed and strength in the loose.
His performance last week has earned him a recall to the starting XV. In addition to that change, Saint-André has also brought in Hugo Bonneval to make his debut on the wing and Yoann Maestri into the second row.
Italy’s pack has a formidable spine in the form of Alberto de Marchi, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Martin Castrogiovanni, Quintin Geldenhuys and Sergio Parisse, with those five players the Azzurri can hold their own against any forward unit in the competition.
However, it’s out back that this game will be won, and it’s here that you feel the French have the edge. Wesley Fofana, despite living off very little possession, was immense in his creativity against England last week.
Matthieu Bastareaud created plenty of go-forward ball, and Yoann Huget and Gael Fickou provided the X-factor needed to finish off scores.
Add in Maxime Machenaud and Francois on the bench and France have the firepower to do damage this Sunday.
Italy, in theory, just don’t carry that same threat and the questions persist about the effectiveness of their backline.
Centre Campagnaro scored a fine counter-attacking try, and a breakaway try, last week against Wales, but Italy lacked the needed incision in attack to win the tie.
Gonzalo Garcia and Tommaso Iannone both come into the team this weekend in an effort to change that, while Tommaso Allan continues at stand-off.
If Italy can bring something different and fresh to their attacking performance they could pull off an upset; however, on the basis of their outing last week in Cardiff, they will struggle to do so.
Verdict: France to win by 15.
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Live television coverage of Ireland v Wales and Scotland v England from 13:30 on Saturday 8 February, and France v Italy from 14:30 on Sunday 9 February on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Saturday Sport (14:00) and Sunday Sport (14:00) on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).