Franco Smith's first game in charge of Italy was unmemorable: A 42-0 loss at defending champion Wales. France led 24-0 at one stage against Rugby World Cup runner-up England, and will be favored to win convincingly against an Italy side which beat only Russia, Namibia and Canada last year.
But don't expect Galthié to take Italy lightly by shaking up his side. Unlike his predecessors, who drafted in legions of new faces without success, Galthié wants each cap earned to feel like an achievement.
“The idea is to build a team where caps are worth gold," Galthié said. "Capping players, making them improve, brings a very high value to each cap. Rotating for the sake of rotating is not the strategy.”
Galthié knows the value of the jersey. He wore it 64 times as a standout scrumhalf, during which time he helped Les Tricolors win the Grand Slam three times. Now he's the leader off the field, trying to make France the successful rugby nation it once was.
France has not won the Six Nations since 2010, when it also clinched the Grand Slam. So Galthié's blueprint for this tournament, and all the way until the 2023 World Cup, is to build around solid partnerships in key positions.
The halves pairing, for example, has been a complex issue over the past decade, and not since the days of Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc has there been a settled and productive 9-10. That already looks like changing.
Scrumhalf Antoine Dupont's outstanding display against England, in tandem with World Cup revelation Romain Ntamack at flyhalf, really caught the eye. They were involved in all three tries. Dupont is 23 and Ntamack is 20, so they are full of energy and running. Yet both also have a maturity beyond their years. They should form a nailed-on partnership with speed, line-breaking ability, good kicking and tactical nous, for years to come.
Yannick Bru, who worked as an assistant coach on France's team from 2012-17, says the diminutive but stocky Dupont reminds him of former New Zealand standout scrumhalf Byron Kelleher. “He's never more dangerous than when he has no choice but to attack the defense. He's a jewel,” Bru told sports daily L'Equipe. “The power in his legs reminds me of Kelleher during his best years, the way he accelerates around the rucks and the way he leaves the first two defenders behind.”
The irrepressible Dupont made a devastating burst through midfield for France's third try against England, leaving several players in his wake before offloading to rampaging flanker Charles Ollivon. Dupont also helped out the defense when England fought back, prompting Galthié to effectively call him a “ninth forward” because of his dogged tackling.
France has another strong partnership in midfield with centers Virimi Vakatawa and Gaël Fickou, who were dynamic at times during the World Cup. While Vakatawa is out against Italy after hurting his triceps against England, it offers Galthié the chance to test another young talent in Arthur Vincent. He captained France to victory at the under-20 world championship last year.
“He's had a perfect path. He's part of the generation which won the Under-20 World Cup," Galthié said. "He's doing well each match for his club Montpellier and he's doing very well in each training session with us. He's a versatile center who can play 12 or 13. He's capable of speeding things up and tightening things up.”
Smith's tenure started suddenly, when the South African coach was put in temporary charge of Italy following Conor O’Shea's sudden resignation after the World Cup. His side faces another onslaught at Stade de France.
France: Anthony Bouthier, Teddy Thomas, Arthur Vincent, Gaël Fickou, Vincent Rattez, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Grégory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon (captain), François Cros, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Mohamed Haouas, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille. Reserves: Peato Mauvaka, Jefferson Poirot, Demba Bemba, Romain Taofifenua, Boris Palu, Cameron Woki, Baptiste Serin, Matthieu Jalibert.
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Mattia Bellini, Luca Morsi, Carlo Canna, Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley; Braam Steyn, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri, Niccolò Cannone, Alessandro Zanni, Giosuè Zilochhi, Luca Bigi (captain), Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Federico Zani, Danilo Fischetti, Marco Riccioni, Dean Budd, Federico Ruzza, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Giulio Bisegni.
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