Laporte asks France to turn on the winning style

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The Independent Online

The what-ifs and maybes of who wins the Six Nations Championship is a mathematical maze of possibilities and the France coach, Bernard Laporte, is just not getting all hot and bothered about it.

"The important thing is for the team to play well," he said. "To win the Championship would be a bonus." And if the French can beat Italy in as entertaining a fashion as they played in the first half against Ireland in Dublin, then it will please the sell-out 24,593 Stadio Flaminio. And that in turn will please the Italian authorities.

Giancarlo Dondi, the Italian federation president is positively purring with pride at the way the interest rate of the public in his sport is beginning to take hold in a country where football, Ferraris and food matter more than most things and most especially the 15-a-side game.

It is the third of their three Six Nations matches that has been a sell-out - despite the fact that their heroes have yet to win a match in this season's tournament - and these days there are more Azzurri supporters than visiting fans at the stadium.

"This demonstrates two important things," said Dondi. "The first is that the capacity at the Flaminio is insufficient to satisfy the appetite for rugby in Italy.

"The second is that the growth in enthusiasm for rugby in Italy is not linked to the results of the national team but to the ethics and values the sport offers."

If it really does take off then the Italian authorities will have to look elsewhere to house their growing army of fans, perhaps even out of Rome, although the sporting politics of the country and its capital would almost certainly militate against that.

But their chances of beating France are not good, no matter how bravely they battle. French form alone suggests they will win. Not that any Frenchman is taking anything for granted.

The France captain, Fabien Pelous, echoes the views of his coach, insisting the play is the thing. "Finishing in the top place? What counts the most after all is how we play. If we feel we have a chance we will take it, but Italy will be tough opponents. They have gradually improved each year."

Just a couple of years ago those would have been hollow sentiments, but under John Kirwan, their director of rugby, the Azzurri have hardened their attitudes and toughened their style. If their very first Six Nations win against Scotland in Rome in 2000 was a fluke, the two since - against Scotland again and Wales - were far less so, and the fact that they now compete up front with as good a set of forwards as can be found anywhere in Europe, has given everyone food for thought, including the France prop Sylvain Marconnet.

"Italy play a crazy, unpredictable game," he said, "and they will be very hard to beat. It's true that Italian newspapers give little importance to rugby in a country where football is the king, but with more victories the interest will come."

He and his team-mates are keen to make sure that that an explosion of interest in rugby is not sparked by a French defeat this afternoon.