Some light at the end of Italian tunnel
The next time France play Italy -- after today -- it won't just be away from home, it will be against a squad who will have enjoyed their best ever preparation for the fixture, indeed their best run-in to the tournament.
So, going into their 12th season in the Six Nations, at last the Italians will be backboned by players who have had exposure to quality rugby between Magners League and Heineken Cup. Unfortunately, that's 12 months away.
For the moment, in Paris this afternoon, Italy will have to feed off the positive vibe that is their inclusion in Celtic rugby for 2010/11. And of course the beautifully timed win two weeks ago over Scotland in Rome.
That it was the Scots who were the final impediment to Italy's inclusion made it all the sweeter. And what finally got it over the line? Eh, a bit of strong-arm tactics from Ireland and Wales.
The fixtures have still to be sorted out, and notwithstanding the inescapable -- that any fixtures meeting is a migraine -- we'll be looking at an even fuller list next season, and when weakened Irish teams go to Treviso in particular they may come home empty-handed.
We'll have to wait and see if the prospect of putting one over on Munster or Leinster, without the attraction of an O'Driscoll or O'Connell on board, is enough to stimulate the Italian public, for they like their stars there. Much of the positive profile being enjoyed by the national side there is because the game is perceived to be sexy, not because the punters understand its technicalities.
It will be interesting too to see the colour of the tv deal when it is concluded in a couple of weeks. For home Tests they can attract one million viewers, which is small beer by Italian football standards but gives an indication of the market.
Naturally enough, not everyone in Italy is delighted with this new development. Their low-standard domestic league will suffer further by the migration of the best players to Treviso and Viadana (Aironi is the franchise name but Viadana will supply the bulk of the players). And the bigger sponsors will follow.
As for this afternoon, Italy's record against the French is forbidding -- one win in 30 attempts -- and with a Grand Slam looming this hardly seems like the time for Marc Lievremont's men to fall apart. Moving Mathieu Bastareaud to the bench in favour of David Marty robs them of some power but the Perpignan centre has a mean streak that might come in useful.
Julien Malzieu also makes way for Marc Andreu from Castres who made his debut off the bench against Wales in Cardiff. Andreu is a departure from what has become the norm in this bulky French back division. Known as 'the elf', he is more Shane Williams than Jonah Lomu. And he's quick.
It's unlikely he'll have to defend too much either. Mallett has taken Italy this far on the back of a campaign of pragmatism which started on the tour Down Under last summer, when the arrival of Craig Gower did so much to lift their fortunes. He has given them a bit of steel and organisation at 10 where for so long they have been so flaky. He is part of a side, unchanged from two weeks ago, that won't be taking risks today. Mallett fears being opened up in these last two games, a development which would take from their performances against England and Scotland. So it will be safety first. This may not be the best game you've ever watched.
France: C Poitrenaud; M Andreu, D Marty, Y Jauzion, A Palisson; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; T Domingo, W Servat, N Mas, L Nallet, J Pierre, J Bonnaire, I Harinordoquy, T Dusatoir (capt). Replacements: D Szarzewski, JB Poux, S Chabal, A Lapandry; D Yachvili, M Bastareud, J Malzieu.
Italy: L McLean; A Masi, G Canale, G Garcia, M Bergamasco; C Gower, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, L Ghiraldini (capt), M Castrogiovanni, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami, J Sole, A Zanni, M Bergamasco. Replacements: F Ongaro, M Aquero, C Del Fava, P Derbyshire; P Canavosio, R Bocchino, K Robertson.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland)
France v Italy,
RTE 2/BBC 2, 2.30