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Fearless Azzurri promise to test backbone of Les Bleus


France might go into the Six Nations as joint favourites with England but they will tread warily on to the Stadio Olimpico pitch for their opener tomorrow. The last time they played in Rome – at the Stadio Flaminio two years ago – Les Bleus suffered their first ever defeat against the rugby-playing Azzurri of Italy.

"France are a great team, but there's no doubt about the fact they have respect for us," Italy's captain, the Stade Français No 8 Sergio Parisse, said. "In 2011 we beat them at Flaminio. We all know their individual qualities, but we'll be going into this match with no fear, as we do every time."

France will have the considerable quality of Thierry Dusautoir at openside flanker. The former France captain and 2011 World Player of the Year was rested for the tour of Argentina in June and missed the autumn Tests because of a knee injury.

Lock Pascal Papé retains the captain's armband, while Maxime Machenaud's fine performances in France's three November wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa have earned him another start at scrum-half, alongside Frédéric Michalak. "The backbone of the team is the one that started the November Tests," coach Philippe Saint-André said.

Dusautoir was not guaranteed a place in the starting line-up when he was called up to the initial 33-man squad but his work ethic has secured a spot.

"When we drew the 33-man list, Thierry Dusautoir was not playing with Toulouse so we had to wait until his last two European Cup and Top 14 games to assess his form," Saint-André said. "We saw during his preparation that he had worked a lot while he was injured. In Italy we will need to defend a lot, so we will need his experience and his ferocity."

As for the co-favourite tag going into the championship, Saint-André insisted that complacency would not be an undermining factor in his team's challenge.

"France were the favourites against Italy two years ago," the former Sale and Gloucester coach said. "It was a tsunami. We will have to be focused on this game now. We have won four matches in a row; let's make it five."

Saint-André insisted that France's priority was simply to get off to a good start in their opening two matches. "We are going to divide it into two blocks: win in Italy and then the home game against Wales," he said. "Then we'll think about the rest afterwards."