Brunel calls on Italian belief ahead of French test
Jacques Brunel's hopes of making Italy believe they can gain at least two wins in this year's Six Nations face a first significant hurdle when the Azzurri host France at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday.
Head coach Brunel led Italy to a fifth place finish last year thanks to a closing 13-6 victory over Scotland in Rome, having produced one of their best ever performances in a 15-19 loss to England.
However the jury remains out on whether those feats, as well as two promising displays against New Zealand and Australia in last November's test series, are a sure sign that Italy is ready to rock the big boys of European rugby.
Heading into Sunday's match against the World Cup finalists, Italy should be boosted by the knowledge they have beaten Les Bleus before – claiming their first ever tournament win (22-21) over the French at Flaminio Stadium in 2011.
That, says captain and No 8 Sergio Parisse, means France have no option but to take Italy seriously.
"France are a great team, but there's no doubt about the fact they have respect for us. In 2011 we beat them at Flaminio," said Parisse, who plays at French Top 14 side Stade Francais.
"We all know their individual qualities, but we'll be going into this match with no fear, as we do every time."
After a year in which improvements have been made, former France assistant coach Brunel says the Italians' belief in their own capabilities could be key.
"One of the biggest challenges I have is convincing the players of their own ability and potential to challenge the best," Brunel told AFP recently.
"We still have a lot of things to improve. But a lot of it comes down to the ambition you have, the spirit you show and how you show it.
"We are looking more to impose our game on our opponents than simply oppose them. Even if you manage to oppose the rival team in determined fashion, at some point or another you start to suffer."
In a match that could set the tone for the remainder of the hosts' campaign, as well as determine whether France can live up to the hype of being co-favourites, Italy will be desperate for a solid start.
Their strategy is one based on attack, said Parisse, although the hosts will be mindful of counterbalancing that by improving their notorious lack of discipline at key moments.
"We won't be sitting back and defending. We'll be going out to try and attack. Each of our home games is an opportunity for a win," Parisse said last week.
France, considered the likely Six Nations champions by Parisse, could line up with Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud, the powerful but quick centre who would complete his return after a three-year absence.
Bastareaud has not been part of France's set-up since being forced to admit he lied over a late night incident on the 2009 tour of New Zealand which left him with facial injuries.
Saint-Andre will name his starting XV for the match on Friday morning, and it could include Frederic Michalak, who scored 19 points as France twice came from behind to defeat Samoa 22-14 in their one-off test in November.
That win gave Les Bleus a sweep of their autumn series matches after beating Australia 33-6 and Argentina 39-22.
After Italy's shaky performance against Tonga was followed by more convincing displays against New Zealand then Australia, Parisse is now hoping they can swap promise for tangible results.
"The gap between us and the other teams is closing, but for the credibility of the team we need results."
"We don't fear of any team in the Six Nations and we want to confirm our progression by winning matches."