France makes 5 changes to face Italy in 6 Nations
PARIS (AP) France's players have been drowning their sorrows for too long and will be desperate to celebrate beating Italy in the Six Nations.
They will need to think twice, however, before letting off steam if they win Friday night's game. Because all eyes are firmly fixed on coach Jacques Brunel's struggling team.
Les Bleus have lost seven and drawn one of the past eight games. Worse still, poor discipline on the pitch has spilled over onto the streets.
After the 32-26 defeat to Scotland on Feb. 11, several players went on a drinking spree into the early hours. The next morning they were hauled off the team plane to answer questions from Scottish police, before being cleared of any wrongdoing.
But the matter did not end there.
That they went out without Brunel's permission - or the knowledge of captain Guilhem Guirado - meant the band of revelers was immediately suspended. Among them Teddy Thomas, whose superb performances from the right wing have been a rare bright spot.
It was the last thing France needed, after losing 15-13 to Ireland with the last kick of the game and then throwing it away by constantly giving away penalties in Scotland.
Friday's match against Italy is only Brunel's third in charge since taking over from Guy Noves - who was fired in late December because of poor results. France failed to cut out sloppy mistakes under Noves, yet the penalty count remains remarkably high.
''I think we're the most penalized team in the tournament,'' Brunel said. ''You can't win at this level when you concede 13 penalties against Scotland.''
Brunel used to coach Italy. He might even envy the relative tranquility of his time in charge there, given the chaos engulfing the France team.
''We're playing Italy amid particular circumstances, we can't hide that,'' Brunel said after naming his team on Wednesday. Although he is seeking consistency, the imposed suspensions forced him to make five changes.
''Those coming into the side have an opportunity,'' he said. ''Circumstances have given them the chance to stake a claim.''
The entire back three from the Scotland game has changed, with returning fullback Hugo Bonneval flanked by wingers Benjamin Fall and Remy Grosso.
Burly Toulon center Mathieu Bastareaud returns for his 43rd test cap. He had been dropped from the squad before the Six Nations after receiving a three-week suspension for using anti-gay language during a match with his club.
Paul Gabrillagues is in at second row for Arthur Iturria - among those suspended.
According to some French media reports, Iturria involved in a scuffle on the streets of Edinburgh. Iturria reportedly attributed his facial bruising to collapsing drunk onto his bed post after the night out - a similar claim to that used by Bastareaud following a night out in New Zealand in 2011.
Guirado, a determined leader, is understandably angry.
Time and again, the tough-tackling Guirado has lamented his team's lack of discipline on the field. Surely he never anticipated having off-field matters to deal with, too.
''All of this makes me sadder about the image of the France team,'' he told sports daily L'Equipe. ''What happened will serve as an example. I think everyone's got the message.''
Some players, in his opinion, lack the focus needed for the highest level.
''I wouldn't say they couldn't care less,'' Guirado said. ''But I get the impression they think `everything will be fine tomorrow.'''
The match is at Stade Veldrome in Marseille - a soccer stadium hosting its first Six Nations game.
Italy has beaten France just twice - including in 2013 when Brunel was in charge. With France in turmoil, the timing is ripe for coach Conor O'Shea's side.
But Italy needs to tighten up, having lost 46-15 at home to England and 56-19 in Ireland. O'Shea made three changes to his lineup. Leonardo Ghiraldini starts at hooker; Andrea Lovotti at loosehead prop and Maxime Mbanda gets the nod at flanker.
''The important thing is to learn from our mistakes,'' O'Shea said. ''We mustn't think about France but focus on ourselves. I hope we give our fans a performance to be proud of.''
So does Brunel.
France: Hugo Bonneval, Benjamin Fall, Mathieu Bastareaud, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Remy Grosso, Lionel Beauxis Maxime Machenaud; Marco Tauleigne, Yacouba Camara, Wenceslas Lauret, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Gabrillagues, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Romain Taofifenua, Kelian Galletier, Baptiste Couilloud, Francois Trinh-Duc, Gael Fickou.
Italy: Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Benvenuti, Tommaso Boni, Tommaso Castello, Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Allan, Marcello Violi; Sergio Parisse (captain), Maxime Mbanda , Sebastian Negri, Dean Budd, Alessandro Zanni, Simone Ferrari, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lovotti. Reserves: Lucas Bigi, Nicola Quaglio, Tiziano Pasquali, George Biagi, Federico Ruzza, Edoardo Gori, Carlo Canna, Jayden Hayward.