In the final game of the opening round of this year’s Six Nations the byword is in the tagline above – Italy simply need to try and be competitive a trait they will need to demonstrate throughout this tournament. There is literally a snowball’s chance in hell that they are going to pull one over the mighty French in a rain sodden Stade de France on Sunday. However, if they can keep themselves in the match for at least the first hour, much as they did for the first 30 minutes against the All Blacks in November, then Kieran Crowley and his charges will have started their Six Nations campaign in the vein in which they mean to continue.
As for France, they will be seeking to lay down a marker that they are the team to beat this year and then some. To that effect Coach Fabien Galthie has brought a star studded cast to the Stade de France and a fully loaded squad. Looking at the lineup there are simply no deficiencies in it and it’s a thoroughly tried and tested set of combinations. In short, nothing is being left to chance. France often start the Six Nations with a wobble and although nobody can really entertain the idea of them losing to Italy on home soil, there is no denying that a degree of rustiness is often present in the squad in their opening match of the tournament. It is precisely for that reason that Galthie has chosen to stick with his big guns for a match where had it been further into the tournament, he would probably have had the luxury of experimenting with his setups and resting some tired bodies.
While the victor is in little doubt, this should still be a fascinating contest as we get to see how competitive Italy can be and how dominant France really are, especially against weaker opposition. Like all the games this weekend, the weather will play a part and probably be more of a handicap for the Italians than the French, so don’t necessarily expect a free flowing game and instead one where both sides cautiously test their Six Nations straps.
France’s player of the tournament in the making?
While the media are literally fainting over France’s all star half back combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack who will feature in this match, spare a thought for utility forward Cameron Woki. He was utterly outstanding in last year’s Six Nations and against the All Blacks. Exceptionally versatile and a player who surprisingly has never played in the second row until his French callup, Woki is a massive weapon in France’s arsenal. His presence dominates lineouts, adds an unstoppable power to rolling mauls and in the loose he is devastatingly effective. In short, he is one of the most complete forward players we have seen France produce. To top it all off he is only 23. Expect to see him make the headlines week in week out this Six Nations and Italy will have their hands full keeping him in check on Sunday.
Ruzza is finally seen as a starter
If we can say one positive thing about new Italian Coach Keiran Crowley it is that he has, unlike his predecessors, seen the value of starting second rower Federico Ruzza instead of keeping him on the bench. This is possibly due to Crowley’s time at Ruzza’s club Benetton and a familiarity with what the feisty utility forward can contribute to his team’s efforts. Ball in hand Ruzza is a genuinely dangerous prospect and he’s also rather handy at producing turnover ball. In short, we are delighted to see the big man finally get the recognition he deserves. He’ll have his hands full trying to contain France’s wonder weapon Cameron Woki, but if he can compete it will be a telling indication of how well Italy will fare this Six Nations.
Garbisi’s biggest Six Nations to date
There is no question that Italian fly half Paolo Garbisi has talent by the bucket load, but he has also become in the blink of an eye the talisman around which his team will succeed or fail. If Garbisi is having a good day then so will Italy. He has an aura around him almost akin to the legendary Sergio Parisse. We’re just not sure that he has mastered the art of running a game in the wet. In dry conditions, provided he can maintain his accuracy then he can be one of the Six Nations most skillful competitors. However, in conditions that don’t favor a running game Garbisi is simply not as confident or assured. If he can add that string to his already accomplished bow on Sunday, then Italian fortunes will continue to rise.
The Six Nations leading try scorer in the making?
To put it simply, French winger Damian Penaud can score from ANYWHERE! We were always slightly bemused at how he was often glossed over come selection time by former French Coaches, but under Galthie Penaud has blossomed into the superstar he was always destined to be. He’ll have a genuine match on his hands as he’ll have to keep Italian speedster Monty Ioane in check. The difference is that Penaud has mastered the ability to cross the whitewash in all conditions – rain or shine. Penaud is your all season winger and although the conditions on Sunday are unlikely to favor a free flowing game, Penaud will find a way to gain some traction and build up a head of steam in slippery conditions. Give him the ball and a chink of light in the defence and no matter what the weather is doing – he’s gone plain and simple!
A very solid last line of defense
A revelation on the tour to Australia and outstanding against New Zealand in November, French fullback Melvyn Jaminet took the French rugby public by storm last year. To be honest until then we’d never heard of him, but now he is such an integral part of French planning that it’s hard to see how they ever lived without him. Brice Dulin is equally talented but somehow Jaminet has shown that he has the cooler head under pressure in a very short space of time. France’s propensity for flair has sometimes made decision making at the back less than stellar on occasion. However, with Jaminet running France’s last line of defense there is a security which the rest of his teammates can take great comfort from. In short, France like England’s Freddie Steward and Ireland’s Hugo Keenan, have reliability and sound decision making built into their fifteen jersey in the shape of Jaminet.
Like we say the outcome isn’t really in doubt and is clearly in France’s favor. However, it should nevertheless be a fascinating and important encounter for both sides and an opportunity to lay down their respective statements of intent for this Six Nations.