France fields strong team against ambitious Italy
Updated: February 02, 2012, 06:12
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PARIS(AP) Widely tipped as favorites for this year's Six Nations, France will still be mindful of underestimating arguably the weakest team in the competition when Italy visits the Stade de France for the opening match on Saturday.
The French finished runners-up in the World Cup in October but they still remember the embarrassing 22-21 loss to Italy in Rome last season - their first defeat to the Azzurri in the Six Nations.
"We shouldn't believe that the match against Italy will be easy,'' France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. "We will play with a lot of humility and desire. We will try to do anything to start well in this competition.''
France will rely on the backbone of the team that was edged 8-7 by New Zealand in the World Cup final.
Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu and Vincent Debaty are the only players named in France's starting lineup who did not make its World Cup squad. All three play for Clermont Auvergne, which is second in the French league and has qualified for the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup.
Fofana will make his test debut, replacing Perpignan's Maxime Mermoz at center.
Malzieu, who takes Alexis Palisson's spot on the wing, last played in the Six Nations tournament two years ago - when France won the Grand Slam.
Debaty has only one cap and surprisingly gets the nod ahead of Toulouse prop Jean-Baptiste Poux. However, France will otherwise field an experienced pack, with all the forwards in their 30s except Toulouse No. 8 Louis Picamoles.
France has a reputation for being unpredictable.
Les Bleus beat England 19-12 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup and gave the All Blacks a tough match in the final, but only after losing 19-14 to Tonga in the biggest shock of not only the group stage but in the history of the tournament.
Racing Metro lock Lionel Nallet is aware that France could slump to another shock defeat if it doesn't perform well on Saturday.
"The Italians have improved a lot,'' Nallet said. "A few years ago, we could play with little motivation and still get away with it. It's no longer the case today because they have improved. If we play without a minimum of aggression, we won't win.''
Italy finished in last place the past four years but it hopes to make big strides under French coach Jacques Brunel, who replaced Nick Mallett after the World Cup.
"He is very fiddly and has always gotten the best out of the teams he has coached,'' Saint-Andre said about Brunel.
Brunel was the assistant to former France coach Bernard Laporte from 2001 to 2007 and led Perpignan to the French title in 2009.
"France's goal is to win the Six Nations,'' Brunel said. "Ours is to produce a different type of rugby from the past.''
Despite Brunel's intent to introduce a more expansive style, Aironi winger Giovanbattista Venditti and Treviso halfback Kris Burton are the only players in the starting lineup who were not in the World Cup squad.
Burton played in the Six Nations last season and replaces Aironi flyhalf Luciano Orquera, while the uncapped Venditti takes over versatile Treviso back Tommaso Benvenuti, who switches from the right wing to center.
"After our victory last year we're going to face a real battle,'' Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni said. "They're going to want revenge and we're going to have to be ready.''
France: Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu, Francois Trinh-Duc, Dimitri Yachvili; Louis Picamoles, Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Lionel Nallet, Pascal Pape, Nicolas Mas, William Servat, Vincent Debaty. Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Yoann Maestri, Imanol Harinordoquy, Morgan Parra, Lionel Beauxis, Maxime Mermoz.
Italy: Andrea Masi, Giovanbattista Venditti, Tommaso Benvenuti, Alberto Sgarbi, Luke McLean, Kris Burton, Edoardo Gori; Sergio Parisse (captain), Robert Barbieri, Alessandro Zanni, Quintin Geldenhuys, Cornelius Van Zyl, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lo Cicero. Replacements: Tommaso D'Apice, Lorenzo Cittadini, Marco Bortolami, Simone Favaro, Fabio Semenzato, Tobias Botes, Gonzalo Canale.