France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has warned his team against complacency in their Six Nations opener in Rome today, claiming traditional makeweights Italy are “no longer a little team.”
France were stunned by the Italians two years ago when a 22-21 loss sent shockwaves through the sport and Saint-Andre is wary of becoming another French fall-guy.
“They are no longer a little team even if public opinion thinks they are. Italy are progressing, they have evolved in their structure and organization,” the French coach said. “This will be a complicated match. We respect the Italians. We have watched them and we know that if we do not play at a high level then it will be difficult.”
“Statistics made France the favorites two years ago, but the loss created a tsunami in France. We can only think of this game, not the ones to come,” Saint-Andre said.
Former skipper Thierry Dusautoir has been recalled to the France team.
The 31-year-old flanker, who captained France in the 2011 World Cup final against New Zealand, last played for the national side in last year’s Six Nations tournament.
He was then rested for the tour of Argentina and was ruled out of last year’s November Test matches with an injured knee.
In that time, Saint-Andre handed the captaincy over to Stade Francais lock Pascal Pape and he impressed in the job in the wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa.
Other changes see Racing Metro’s Benjamin Fall come in on the wing for the injured Vincent Clerc, while Yoann Huget gets the nod at fullback ahead of the injured Brice Dulin.
Saint-Andre said the toughest choice had been in the back row, where Yannick Nyanga, who impressed on his return to the team in November, was left out of the final 23-man squad to make way for the return of Dusautoir alongside his Toulouse teammate Fulgence Ouedraogo.
Italy’s French coach Jacques Brunel’s hopes of making his team believe they can gain at least two wins in this year’s tournament will face a significant hurdle against France at the Olympic Stadium.
Brunel led Italy to a fifth-place finish last year thanks to a closing 13-6 victory over Scotland in Rome, having produced one of their best-ever performances in a 15-19 loss to England.
However, the jury remains out on whether those feats, as well as two promising displays against New Zealand and Australia in November last year’s Test series, are a sure sign that Italy is ready to rock the big boys of European rugby.
Heading into today’s match against the World Cup finalists, Italy should be boosted by their win in 2011.
That, says captain and No. 8 Sergio Parisse, means France have no option but to take Italy seriously.
“France are a great team, but there’s no doubt about the fact they have respect for us. In 2011 we beat them at Flaminio,” said Parisse, who plays at French Top 14 side Stade Francais. “We all know their individual qualities, but we’ll be going into this match with no fear, as we do every time.”
Tobias Botes has been named at scrumhalf for Italy in place of Edoardo Gori, while Luke McLean replaces injured Mirco Bergamasco on the left wing.
Also featuring today will be fullback Andrea Masi, who scored the try in the 22-21 win two years ago, while Brunel has also gone for youth elsewhere in the backs with Giovanbattista Venditti, 22, on the wing and Tommaso Benvenuti, also 22, at center.
Luciano Orquera, who shone in last year’s November Tests against New Zealand and Australia, remains at flyhalf.