A coach with unparalleled experience of the victories and vicissitudes of French rugby will be in the spotlight taking his first step as a Six Nations head coach in this afternoon's Transalpine derby that kicks off the 2012 Championship at Stade de France. So much for the 58-year-old Italy coach, Jacques Brunel, late of Perpignan and previously an assistant in the Bernard Laporte regime. Philippe Saint-André, the new face as France's top man, has spent as much time coaching in England as he has in his home country since he retired from playing, and therein lies part of his appeal.
France fluctuated between divisive player power and glorious achievement in the last days of Saint-André's immediate predecessor and Laporte's successor in 2008, Marc Lièvremont. It was said that big-ego players such as Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy did as much to dictate tactics as the coach in the march to October's World Cup final, when they lost narrowly to the hosts New Zealand. "We've known for 100 years that French rugby is up and down," said Saint-André, who has worked successfully at Gloucester and Sale. "I have coached clubs with a lot of nationalities and I know communication is important." He has also promised not to change selection for change's sake, unlike Lièvremont, who as the new coach at this post-World Cup stage four years ago threw caps around like confetti.
Italy are the holders of the Garibaldi Trophy after a famous win in Rome last year, which was the Azzurri's first over Les Bleus in the Six Nations and second in 31 meetings overall. There is a debutant on either side – the rangy Clermont centre Wesley Fofana and the Aironi wing Giovanbattista Venditti, slotting in alongside nine Treviso players in the starting XV. Overall, Italy have made seven changes to the team hammered 36-6 by Ireland in Dunedin in departing the World Cup under Nick Mallett at the pool stage.
The French players were obliged to take part in league matches last weekend but their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, who achieved the remarkable feat of being named the 2011 world player of the year in Auckland the day after the All Blacks' final win, is full of sangfroid. "Our job is to play and win games," the Toulouse flanker said. "The rest is politics. Maybe when you're retired you'll do something about it. No one said to be the French coach is easy."