An awkward battle between two sides lacking in confidence and direction takes place as almost an afterthought on Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Both arrive with a record of one win from three, and neither have impressed beyond intermittent moments in the championship. Italy might feel somewhat better about themselves having beaten Scotland in their last run-out and now playing hosts at their favorite locale. France are once again lost at sea, steered wildly off course by a madman at the helm.
If there was any question of whether Philippe Saint-André had a clue about coaching international rugby, surely the answer must be a resounding no. His side have looked clueless, totally absent their Gallic flair, and without an ounce of passion. While it’s easy to criticize the players, one must also be sympathetic to their plight. One week they might be the best player on the field, the next they are riding the bench, without any explanation, or perhaps with one totally incompatible with the reason they were selected in the first place. Instability has never been the path to success in any endeavor, sporting or otherwise. In test rugby it is a shortcut to disaster.
Eight changes have been made this week. In the middle of the Six Nations. With almost an entirely new backline. Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana, Rémi Lamerat, and Sofiane Guitoune are ruled out with injury. In their place are Sébastien Tillous-Borde, Maxime Mermoz, Gaël Fickou, and Noa Nakaitaci, the latter making his full test debut.
Mermoz, if we remember, was dropped from the squad for having a bad attitude. Evidently he has apologized to the right people. Fickou, arguably the brightest light in French rugby, has been criminally unappreciated in the last 12 months. While his inclusion may be met with applause, let’s not forget that he was left out of the so-called ‘elite squad’ in August and ignored for the November test series. That is, of course, not ignoring Mathieu Bastareaud, leapfrogged by both with no rhyme or reason.
The irrationality is at least consistent in the other changes. Where Brice Dulin, Romain Taofifenua, and Rabah Slimani were good enough two weeks ago, they are not so now. Scott Spedding is immediately restored at fullback, with Dulin now deemed short of his best. Lanky lineout artist Alexandre Flanquart moves into the second row against a side that thrives in the rolling maul, and heavyweight Taofifenua is suddenly relegated to Bastareaud status, only useful as an impact sub. Who knows what on earth Nicolas Mas has done to earn a recall, and why Uini Atonio, who has made strong contributions as a reserve alongside Vincent Debaty, is now out completely.
Jules Plisson’s addition to the bench is a mirror image of Fickou. It’s great to see him in the squad, but why now after being ignored for so long? What has Rémi Talès done to be shown the door? Similarly the squad bolter Loann Goujon is now wearing the no8 shirt. In September he wasn’t even considered in the top 5 of that position. What a time to be a French supporter. At least there’s plenty to talk about over an espresso.
The baffling French selections make those of Jacques Brunel barely worth mentioning. Injury has forced his hand at openside, with Simone Favaro ruled out, and it’s Samuela Vunisa who plays the square peg fitting into a round hole. Marco Barbini is recalled to the bench after being mysteriously dropped, where he sits beside a fit-again Quintin Geldenhuys. The giant second row is a valuable member of the pack, but not the sort to change a game as a reserve. Giving him the start and 50-odd minutes might have been a better option.
Andrea Masi and Leonardo Sarto have been restored to the run-on XV in place of Enrico Bacchin and Michele Visentin. The most notable absentee is that of Martín Castrogiovanni, who missed the Scottish game with a dog-bitten face but has not been recalled by choice to face France. It’s a bold move by Brunel, but it’s doubtful we have seen the last of Castro in an Italian jersey. More likely this is a gentle reminder that his starting spot is not a guarantee. He remains an important character in the squad and will return sooner than later.
So what will happen on the pitch? Does anyone know? Is there any point making predictions? We know how Italy will play, but France could either be doing the headless chicken act or blasting the Azzurri out of existence by halftime. Italy will find some success up front, as they did against the Scots, but in the wide spaces it looks like a crap shoot. Italy’s slightly more cohesive look and home field advantage might just be enough to squeak out another surprise victory. For that reason, take Italy by 3, but for heaven’s sake don’t put money on it.
ITALY vs FRANCE
Sunday, March 15, 15:00 GMT, Rome
Referee: J.P. Doyle (RFU)
Assistants: Nigel Owens (WRU) & Stuart Berry (SARU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)