Italy’s new coach starting 6N against favorites France in Paris

PARIS (AP) — Kieran Crowley knows what it’s like to be the favorite, having won the Rugby World Championships as All Blacks and Under-19 coach.

He is also familiar with the feeling of being a rank underdog, having coached Canada and Benetton Treviso. The new Italy coach is therefore unfazed and realistic about leading his team which has not won a Six Nations match for seven years against title favorites France on Sunday at the Stade de France.

Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that both won their last tests. Then again, on the day last November when Crowley’s Italy struggled to beat Uruguay to end a two-year losing drought, France ripped through New Zealand 40-25.

And yet, Crowley is somewhat optimistic.

“The work carried out during these weeks of preparation (…) has been intense and of high quality,” he said. “There is a lot of energy in the group and awareness… it will be important to stay away in the key moments of the match.”

Easier said than said against a side with World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont orchestrating the attacks alongside graceful fly-half Romain Ntamack.

Both were outstanding against the All Blacks and coach Fabien Galthié made just two changes there – drafting Dylan Cretin to the third line and Julien Marchand at hooker.

Galthié has arguably the most exciting halves in world rugby. And on the horizon, the Rugby World Cup at home next year. But on Sunday, at least, they might not be as lively after recently recovering from COVID-19 and barely playing club rugby.

“It’s curious because it’s the first time in the tournament that we’ve faced this,” said Galthié. “Normally they arrive here after playing 10 games. So the question is how good will their form be? Our training methods have allowed us to prepare the players for Sunday in a short time.

Galthié will not face Crowley, however. He tested positive for the virus on Friday and is self-isolating, so assistant coach Raphael Ibanez takes over. Galthie will relay the advice by telephone.

Galthié is the fifth member of the French squad to test positive since January 24. Dupont and Ntamack were among eight players to test positive before then and were eventually allowed to return. Per tournament protocol, the players will undergo further testing on Saturday.

In two years under Galthié, France finished twice as runners-up at the Six Nations. The second will not be tolerated this time, as France seek a first title in 12 years to end their second-longest tournament drought.

To accommodate Cretin, the versatile Cameron Woki was moved from the back row to lock.

But substitute fly-half Matthieu Jalibert was left out as he regains full fitness and Virimi Vakatawa, one of the best French players in the last two Six Nations, was not in the squad after a loss of shape.

Crowley debuted right winger Tommaso Menoncello and number 8 Toa Halafihi in a new Azzurri team where flanker Sebastian Negri is the most experienced with 36 caps. Full-back Edoardo Padovani is next with 30.

Twelve of Crowley’s starting squads play for Benetton, and halves Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi are among three who play elsewhere.

Italy were beaten by France 50-10 in Rome last year, and recent history does not deter another heavy defeat under the Azzurri’s third manager in four years.

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Compositions:

France: Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Gaël Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villière, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Gregory Alldritt, Dylan Cretin, Anthony Jelonch, Paul Willemse, Cameron Woki, Uini Atonio, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille. Reserves: Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifenua, François Cros, Maxime Lucu, Yoram Moefana, Thomas Ramos.

Italy: Edoardo Padovani, Tommaso Menoncello, Juan Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Montanna Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Stephen Varney; Toa Halafihi, Michele Lamaro, Sebastian Negri, Federico Ruzza, Niccolo Cannone, Tiziano Pasquali, Gianmarco Lucchesi, Danilo Fischetti. Reserves: Epalahame Faiva, Ivan Nemer, Giosue Zilocchi, Marco Fuser, Giovanni Pettinelli, Manuel Zuliani, Callum Braley, Leonardo Marin.

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AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

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