Rugby's Six Nations tournament kicks off Saturday, with France set to play Italy at the Stade de France. France made it through to the last World Cup finals, but Italy beat Les Bleus in last year's Six Nations.
AFP - World Cup finalists France will bid to get their Six Nations campaign off with a resounding bang when they host Italy at the Stade de France on Saturday.
But the French, 8-7 losers to New Zealand in rugby's showpiece event in October, will be wary about writing off the Italians, who despite enjoying the unenviable record of having won just eight of their 60 Six Nations matches, actually beat France last year.
"The tournament will be extremely tough as it always is," said France lock Pascal Pape.
"We're vice-champions of the world, but that's purely honorific, it changes nothing, our goal is to win the Six Nations.
"We're on a level pegging with the other teams. Wales made the semi-finals, Ireland and England each a quarter-final, and Italy had a good World Cup and matched Australia and Ireland for 60 minutes. It's going to be complicated."
Pape said the disappointment of losing to the All Blacks in the World Cup final would spur on the French team, which now has a new coach in Philippe Saint-Andre, who took over from Marc Lievremont on his return from New Zealand.
"When you get within a hair's breath of being world champion, of course it's frustrating," the Stade Francais second-row forward said.
"We have one thing driving us and that's to return to compeition to win something because it's been tough to swallow."
Pape stressed, however, that eyes were firmly pinned on what was ahead and that thoughts were not being allowed to linger on past memories of a World Cup campaign that saw France suffer a shock loss to Tonga and players fall out with Lievremont.
"We went through all the emotions there: shame, pride after having beaten England, a feeling altogether different after playing Wales, and then the final.
"But it's in the past. We have to write a new page in the history of the France team and that starts with Italy."
Italy have also changed coaches, South African Nick Mallett moving aside for Frenchman Jacques Brunel, who coached Perpignan to the Top 14 championship title in 2009.
Brunel has vowed to adopt a more attacking style of play in his bid to turn Italy into a top-six team in the world within four years.
"What's true is that the French team is strong and will fight to win the tournament, that's their aim every time," said Brunel.
"We have a different objective which is to find cohesion between the new staff and the team. We want to play in a different way (to the past) and to have different amibitions."
Brunel sprang a surprise by picking uncapped Giovanbattista Venditti on the wing, while also opting for third-choice Treviso scrum-half Edoardo Gori, with the experienced Gonzalo Canale on the bench as Tommaso Benvenuti and Alberto Sgarbi (12 caps each) make up midfield.
Up front, the only surprise was that Mauro Bergamasco was not even afforded a place on the bench, while Robert Barbieri starts in the back row alongside captain Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni.
France coach Saint-Andre named 17 members of the World Cup squad in his 22-man match-day squad, with Clermont duo Vincent Debaty and Wesley Fofana making the starting XV.
Montpellier fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, who played mostly a replacement's role during the World Cup, returns as the first choice no 10, where he will link up with Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili, who was preferred over Morgan Parra.
Louis Picamoles got the nod at No 8 ahead of Imanol Harinordoquy.
Date created : 2012-02-03