Italy spot chance to upset French applecart

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The France coach Bernard Laporte has twin aims as the Six Nations kicks off here: "To win matches and take a look at the maximum number of players." Italy's objective, as always, is a win; just a win. Plus ça change? An awful lot would change with an Italian victory.

Of course history tells us it is unlikely to happen, but in Rome of all places, Italy must forget their history and cast off their role as plucky but inevitable losers in these top fixtures. "The public is beginning to expect results," said Paul Griffen, their New Zealand-born scrum-half, yesterday. "We're a more complete team now." A complete team is what Laporte seeks, with a World Cup to be hosted by France in the autumn, and a Six Nations title (he has won it three times in seven attempts) to defend. The bespectacled look and the language barrier makes Laporte somewhat inscrutable to the average Brit; in fact he holds forth in his own radio show "Laporte Live" every Friday night and has admitted he has around five spots in his World Cup 30 to decide.

To this end Laporte has a squad of 40 for the Six Nations, with every player guaranteed at least one appearance. Today the Sale No 8 Sébastien Chabal and Stade Français fly-half David Skrela have most to gain if they go well. Skrela and Pierre Mignoni make up the 28th half-back partnership since Laporte became coach in 2000. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Freddy Michalak and Damien Traille are injured and Dimitri Yachvili is a replacement. Skrela needs to attack the gainline more often than Traille did in the humbling defeats by New Zealand last autumn. If not his young Stade Français club-mate, Lionel Beauxis, could get a Test debut from the bench.

Italy were whitewashed in the Championship in 2005, and earned a single point last year from a draw in Wales. They led 12-8 at half-time in Paris last February, but lost 37-12. Eight of the XV selected by coach Pierre Berbizier are with French clubs and three more - Carlos Nieto, Fabio Ongaro and the estimable captain Marco Bortolami - play in England. That leaves four home-based starters including the 5ft 9ins fly-half, Andrea Scanavacca, who, at the age of 33, wins his eighth cap. In other respects the line-up is fairly settled - witness the very dangerous centre pairing of Mirco Bergamasco and Gonzalo Canale - with a complete front row lurking as possible substitutes.

Berbizier is an exile in reverse; a former captain and coach of France, no less. "It's not my game, it's the Italians' game," he said. "I've seen progress. In 2005 we played Australia and lost by 50 points. This season we played and were in contention to win [Italy lost 25-18]." Any time Berbizier makes the mildest of criticism concerning Laporte, such as in a recent issue of L'Equipe, the Transalpine press make a mountain out of a molehill. There was further ammunition when the flanker Mauro Bergamasco claimed Italy needed to evoke the spirit of the World Cup-winning footballer Marco Materazzi; he was not, one assumes, suggesting the French should be goaded into head-butts. It will be a battle, nonetheless, for the newly-created Garibaldi Trophy, named after the general who led Italy's unification, and designed by France's revered flanker-turned-sculptor, Jean-Pierre Rives.

It would take the biscuit if a French World Cup year began with Les Bleus beaten by the Italians for only the second time in 28 attempts. And, crumbs, how loudly that would be celebrated by every non-Francophile among the rest of the Six Nations.

Stadio Flaminio Teams


15 R de Marigny (Calvisano)

14 D Dallan (Stade Français)

13 G Canale (Clermont Auv)

12 Mi Bergamasco (Stade F)

11 A Masi (Biarritz)

10 A Scanavacca (Calvisano)

9 P Griffen (Calvisano)

1 S Perugini (Toulouse)

2 F Ongaro (Saracens)

3 C Nieto (Gloucester)

4 S Dellape (Biarritz)

5 M Bortolami (Gloucs, capt)

6 J Sole (Viadana)

7 Ma Bergamasco (Stade F)

8 S Parisse (Stade Français)

Replacements: C Festuccia (GRAN Parma); A lo Cicero (L'Aquila); M Castrogiovanni (Leicester); R Mandelli (GRAN Parma); A Troncon (Clermont Auvergne); R Pez (Bayonne); K Robertson (Viadana).


15 C Poitrenaud (Toulouse)

14 C Heymans (Toulouse)

13 F Fritz (Toulouse)

12 Y Jauzion (Toulouse)

11 C Dominici (S Français)

10 D Skrela (S Français)

9 P Mignoni (Clermont Auv)

1 O Milloud (Bourgoin)

2 R Ibañez (Wasps, capt)

3 P de Villiers (S Français)

4 L Nallet (Castres)

5 J Thion (Biarritz)

6 S Betsen (Biarritz)

7 J Bonnaire (Bourgoin)

8 S Chabal (Sale)

Replacements: D Szarzewski (S Français); S Marconnet (S Français); P Papé (Castres); I Harinordoquy (Biarritz); D Yachvili (Biarritz); L Beauxis (S Français); V Clerc (Toulouse).