Italy's improved attack ready to make France dig deep
Home camp in disarray for showdown in Marseille
BBC1 & TV3, 8pm Friday
French rugby fans probably thought things couldn't get any worse when they ended 2017 with no wins in their autumn or summer Tests, coach Guy Noves was sacked and the uninspiring Jacques Brunel was brought in to replace him. Well, they were wrong.
Two defeats out of two in the Six Nations is far from the worst of it. Their loss to Scotland was followed by a night out in Edinburgh which ended with five players being questioned by police although Police Scotland said their inquiries had established that no crimes were committed.
Nine players have been axed from their latest squad. Among those dropped by Brunel is winger Teddy Thomas, scorer of all three of France's tries in this campaign, and there are 11 new names in the matchday 23 to face Italy in the unfamilar surroundings of Marseille.
The handicap has also been dropped as a result and Italy are now offered an 18-point start, a mark they have covered in three of their nine Six Nations outings in France including the most recent one, a 23-21 defeat in 2016.
If last year was a poor one for Les Bleus they still managed to beat Italy 40-18 in Rome and on the face of it things haven't improved markedly for the Azzurri yet.
Like France they have lost their first two games - admittedly against tournament favourites England and Ireland - and have failed to stay within sizeable handicaps in both. But there are signs that coach Conor O'Shea is beginning to effect some significant improvement.
Fitness is one key area that O'Shea has focused on, and whereas last year Italy fell away in the second half of games they look a far more competitive outfit over 80 minutes. Their three tries against Ireland a fortnight ago came in the final 25 minutes and they nearly grabbed another right at the death.
That also underlined their improved attacking shape, and the Azzurri have bagged five tries in their first two matches for the first time since 2001.
There were fears that with key backs Angelo Esposito and Michele Campagnaro injured Italy would be left toothless, but several of the players O'Shea has drafted in, particularly from the Zebre backline, have caught the eye.
Full-back Matteo Minozzi is riding high in the stats for metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten and scored his debut try in Dublin last time out. He is a big price to go in again, as is his clubmate Tommaso Boni, who is a powerful, strong-running centre.
An Italian victory over the dispirited-looking French is a 9-1 shot but that looks a distant hope for a team who have still have issues to address in defence - they recorded 26 missed tackles against England and 27 against Ireland. But they can produce enough to make the French work hard for victory.
France to win by one to 12 points
1pt 11-4 Coral, Ladbrokes
M Minozzi to score a try
1pt 5-1 BoyleSports, Coral, Ladbrokes
T Boni to score a try
1pt 7-1 Betway
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