World Cup finalists France will bid to get their Six Nations campaign off with a resounding bang when they host Italy at the Stade de France on Saturday.
But the French, 8-7 losers to New Zealand in rugby's showpiece event in October, will be wary about writing off the Italians, who despite enjoying the unenviable record of having won just eight of their 60 Six Nations matches, actually beat France last year.
"The tournament will be extremely tough as it always is," said France lock Pascal Pape. We're vice-champions of the world, but that's purely honorific, it changes nothing, our goal is to win the Six Nations.
"We're on a level pegging with the other teams. Wales made the semifinals, Ireland and England each a quarterfinal, and Italy had a good World Cup and matched Australia and Ireland for 60 minutes. It's going to be complicated," said the big lock.
Pape said the disappointment of losing to the All Blacks in the World Cup Final would spur on the French team, which now has a new coach in Philippe Saint-Andre, who took over from Marc Lievremont on his return from New Zealand.
"When you get within a hair's breath of being world champion, of course it's frustrating," the Stade Francais second-row forward said. We have one thing driving us and that's to return to compeition to win something because it's been tough to swallow."
Pape stressed, however, that eyes were firmly pinned on what was ahead and that thoughts were not being allowed to linger on past memories of a World Cup campaign that saw France suffer a shock loss to Tonga and players fall out with Lievremont.
"We went through all the emotions there: shame, pride after having beaten England, a feeling altogether different after playing Wales, and then the final. But it's in the past. We have to write a new page in the history of the France team and that starts with Italy," he said.
Italy have also changed coaches, South African Nick Mallett moving aside for Frenchman Jacques Brunel, who coached Perpignan to the Top 14 championship title in 2009.
Brunel has vowed to adopt a more attacking style of play in his bid to turn Italy into a top-six team in the world within four years.
"What's true is that the French team is strong and will fight to win the tournament, that's their aim every time," said Brunel.
"We have a different objective which is to find cohesion between the new staff and the team. We want to play in a different way (to the past) and to have different amibitions," he explained.
Brunel sprang a surprise by picking uncapped Giovanbattista Venditti on the wing, while also opting for third-choice Treviso scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, with the experienced Gonzalo Canale on the bench as Tommaso Benvenuti and Alberto Sgarbi (12 caps each) make up midfield.
Up front, the only surprise was that Mauro Bergamasco was not even afforded a place on the bench, while Robert Barbieri starts in the loose trio alongside captain Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni.
France coach Saint-Andre named 17 members of the World Cup squad in his 22-man match-day squad, with Clermont duo Vincent Debaty and Wesley Fofana making the starting XV.
Montpellier flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc, who played mostly a replacement's role during the World Cup, returns as the first choice playmaker, where he will link up with Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili, who was preferred over Morgan Parra.
Louis Picamoles got the nod at No 8 ahead of Imanol Harinordoquy.
Players to watch:
For France: Outside back Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc are always dangerous from broken play and should come into their own if the halfback pairing of Francois Trinh-Duc and Dmitri Yachvili manage to control the game. French captain Thirry Dusatoir will lead the pack, and he will be ably supported by physical No.8 Julien Bonnaire and second row bruisers Pape and Lionel Nallet who will want to take the game to Italy.
For Italy: Electric fullback Andrea Masi is the undoubted star of the backline and will look to take any opportunity that he is given to spark a try. Captain Sergio Parisse will ant to make his mark from the back of the scrum while in the front row all eyes will be on Martin Castrogiovanni who will want to put the French under pressure.
Head to head: The battle between Parisse and Bonnaire at the back of the scrum should be a highlight while up front the duel between France tighthead Nicolas Mas and Italian loosehead Anrea Lo Cicero should be intense. In the backline both Medard and Masi are able to wreak havoc if given enough space.
2011: Italy won 22-21 in Rome
2010: France won 46-20 in Paris
2009: France won 50-8 in Rome
2008: France won 25-13 in Paris
2007: France won 39-3 in Rome
2006: France won 37-12 in Paris
2005: France won 56-13 in Rome
2004: France won 25-0 in Paris
2003: France won 53-27 in Rome
2002: France won 33-12 in Paris
2001: France won 30-19 in Rome
Prediction: Both teams have new coaches who will be keen to start their tenures on the front foot, so it should be highly competitive. France have simply got too much class and too much depth and with the steadying influence of their new coach it is tough to see Italy posing too much of a concern in Paris. The Azzurri will put up a brave fight but France will eventually overpower them and win by more than 20 points.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurelien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Dmitri Yachvili, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Louis Picamoles, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Yohann Maestri, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Morgan Parra, 21 Lionel Beauxis, 22 Maxime Mermoz.
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovanbattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Kris Burton, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Quintin Geldenhuys, 4 Cornelius van Zyl, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Lorenzo Cittadini, 18 Marco Bortolami, 19 Simone Favaro, 20 Fabio Semenzato, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Gonzalo Canale.
Date: Saturday, February 4
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 15.30 (14.30 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrew Small (England), John Lacey (Ireland)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)
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