RUGBY | 6 NATIONS
Italy expecting a memorable night in Paris
The Azzurri get their Six Nations campaign underway in the French capital this weekend, almost three months on from the terror attacks that left 130 people dead.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel said memories of the Paris terror attacks will be fresh when the Azzurri challenge France in the sides' Six Nations opener on Saturday.
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 -- including a suicide bombing outside Saturday's Stade de France venue -- left at least 130 people dead, Brunel is expecting a “different” encounter.
“This game will have a particular feel to it”, the Frenchman said after unveiling his starting XV on Thursday, in which David Odiete (full-back), Mattia Bellini (left wing) and front rowers Ornel Gega and Andrea Lovotti will make their debuts.
“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 was scheduled to step down following the 2015 World Cup in England, where Italy won only 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 former Perpignan handler is still at the helm and, ahead of a campaign that will see Italy play only twice -- against Scotland and England -- 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”, added the Frenchman.
“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”.
Australian-born Luke McLean starts on the bench, with Odiete given his full debut at left-back after impressing for his club Mogliano.
Mattia Bellini also debuts on the left wing, 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 number 10 shirt going to Zebre's Carlo Canna who is set to make his eighth Italy appearance alongside 47-time capped Edoardo Gori, at scrum half.
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”, said Brunel.
“For years we've have (Andrea) Masi or (Luke) McLean at full-back. 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”.
Italy captain Sergio Parisse, meanwhile, will earn his 115th cap at No 8 to pull level with Castrogiovanni, who is Italy's most-capped player.
Italy have played France a total of 37 times, winning only three times against Les Bleus.
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