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Brunel will give four players their full debuts in Paris as he looks to fill the gaps left by injured or out-of-form players, albeit with one eye on developing Italy’s stars of the future. But less than three months after a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks left at least 130 people dead, Brunel is expecting a ‘different’ encounter.
“This game will have a particular feel to it. Memories of the terror attacks will still be fresh in Paris, the stadium won’t be full and so the atmosphere will be different to what it usually is,” Brunel said.
Brunel was scheduled to step down following the 2015 World Cup in England, where Italy won just two of their pool matches to finish third and fail in their objective of progressing to the next round for the first time.
Yet the 62-year-old is still at the helm and, ahead of a campaign that will see Italy play only twice at home, he is in defiant mood. Although a combination of injuries and a lack of match fitness has forced his hand, Brunel said it’s time to run the rule over Italy’s potential future stars.
“We have 13 players who, for various reasons, can’t be here with us. Either they’re injured or they’ve not been playing much club rugby, and that also applies to the guys who are playing abroad.
“If they’re not playing regularly for their club side, we can’t pick them for Italy. We have to widen our scope for selection because we don’t have a huge base of players to choose from, so we have to help develop the younger ones,” he added.
Australian-born Luke McLean starts on the bench, with Odiete given his full debut after impressing for his club Mogliano. Mattia Bellini also debuts, while, in an apparent changing of the guard, experienced prop Martin Castrogiovanni is on the bench as Benetton Treviso hooker Ornel Gega joins fellow debutant and loosehead prop Andrea Lovotti in the front row.
Elsewhere, New Zealand-born fly-half Kelly Haimona remains on the bench after his recent recovery from injury, with the flyhalf going to Zebre’s Carlo Canna who is set to make his eighth Italy appearance alongside 47-time capped Edoardo Gori at scrumhalf.
Italy endured a tough Six Nations campaign in 2015, only avoiding the wooden spoon thanks to a last-gasp 22-19 win over Scotland at Murrayfield but after yet another poor World Cup, Brunel is hoping to lay the foundations for the Azzurri’s future.
“At our winter training camp we asked whether we wanted to try some of the young lads, or have them wait. And we decided to try them out. For years we’ve have [Andrea] Masi or [Luke] McLean at fullback. We’ve decided to have a look at Odiete. He now playing for Mogliano and is playing regularly, whereas he wasn’t being used much at Zebre, and showing some interesting qualities.
“I’ve been watching him for a few years and in my opinion it’s time to give him a try,” he stated.
Italy have played France a total of 37 times, winning only three times against Les Bleus.
Players to watch:
For France: All eyes will be on Sevens star Virimi Vakatawa, who makes his international debut and it will be interesting to see how much of an impact he can make in the 15-man game. Joining Vakatawa on debut are Sebastien Bezy, Paul Jedrasiak and Jonathan Danty who would all want to make a lasting impression.
For Italy: Italy captain Sergio Parisse will earn his 115th cap at No.8 to pull level with Castrogiovanni, who is Italy’s most-capped player. David Odiete, Mattia Bellini, Ornel Gega and Andrea Lovotti will all be making their debuts and would want to repay their coach for handing them the chance at international level.
Head to head: The big battle of the day is at No.8 where Louis Picamoles and Sergio Parisse will line-up opposite each other and will lock horns in the rucks. Both sets of front rows are inexperienced and it would be quite a sight to see them trying to gain the upperhand on their opponents. Edoardo Gori will probably be aiming to use all his international know-how to upstage his opposite number, Bezy, who is making his debut.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Hugo Bonneval, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sebastien Bezy, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Jefferson Poirot, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yacouba Camara, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Maxime Mermoz.
Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Fuser, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean.