France v Italy
Stade de France, Saturday, 2.25pm (Irish time)
RTÉ 2, BBC 1 France will launch the Guy Noves coaching era – but Les Bleus' star attraction could be Test match newcomer Virimi Vakatawa. The Fiji-born sevens specialist is among four new caps selected by Noves for France's Six Nations opener against Italy in Paris.
Centre Jonathan Danty, scrumhalf Sebastien Bezy and lock Paul Jedrasiak also make their international bows, but it is 23-year-old Vakatawa's selection that has commanded most attention. And former Toulouse coach Noves, who took over from Philippe Saint-Andre after last autumn's World Cup, is relishing seeing the prolific try-scorer in action.
“This is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice,” Noves said of Vakatawa’s selection. “We can’t know how things will go down on Saturday, but given the circumstances, Virimi’s potential, the fact that he is a big prospect for the future, we want to see him in real game conditions rather than believing in him, hoping he could be great but never give him an opportunity.
“We know he has his shortcomings – he has yet to fully get a grip on his role – but the sooner we play him, the better.”
France won the most recent of their five Six Nations titles in 2010, while the Saint-Andre reign ended with a crushing World Cup quarter-final loss to New Zealand, so expectation is not high on Les Bleus.
But they kick off the tournament with successive home games against Italy and an injury-hit Ireland, which could work in Noves’ favour.
“This is the start of something new,” he added. “I don’t want to wait three years to make some experiments.
“I don’t have any experience at international level, but I do have some in the Top 14, and I know that when a young player has the potential to play, you need to have him play.”
While Noves embarks on his international coaching career, with new captain Guilhem Guirado at the helm, 62-year-old Italy coach Jacques Brunel is set to step down after this season’s Six Nations, with current Harlequins rugby director Conor O’Shea a firm favourite to succeed him. And Brunel has mirrored Noves by naming four debutants in his starting line-up – fullback David Odiete, wing Mattia Bellini, plus frontrow forwards Andrea Lovotti and Ornel Gega.
Brunel said: “During the winter, after the World Cup, there were several young players who were able to shine, earning the call-up and then selection for the match against France.
“Certainly, some of our choices were dictated by injuries, of which we have a few. The number of appearances players have made at club level was also a factor, as some players seen at the World Cup went back to their foreign clubs and have not played enough.”