LONDON • Philippe Saint-Andre has just weeks remaining as France rugby coach but hopes the moment to confound his critics is imminent as Les Bleus embark on their World Cup campaign against Italy today.
The 48-year-old believes he can mount a serious challenge to land France their first World Cup. And it all starts with a Twickenham battle against an Italy side deprived of Sergio Parisse - their one world-class player and inspirational captain.
Anything but a convincing victory over the Italians will be considered a below-par performance.
A win would also build confidence that they can beat Pool D favourites Ireland. Saint-Andre has yet to get the better of the back-to-back Six Nations champions in four meetings.
The former France captain - who will be replaced by Guy Noves after the final whistle has been blown on their tournament - is without his star centre Wesley Fofana for the opener. But he has tried to ease the pressure on his players by telling them to go out and enjoy themselves.
"I have lined up my best team at the moment, the most in form," said Saint-Andre, who comes into the game on the back of a rare pair of successive wins in warm-up ties against England and Scotland.
"We have been preparing for this since July 6 and the players are really champing at the bit to get going.
"I feel that they are in a good place... What is important is that the players don't put too much pressure on themselves."
Saint-Andre has been criticised for not sticking with a regular halfback partnership throughout his reign. But he appears to have fixed that, with Toulon duo Frederic Michalak and Sebastien Tillous- Borde set to line up for the third straight match.
Saint-Andre's woes pale in comparison to those of his compatriot and Italy coach Jacques Brunel.
Aside from losing the injured Parisse for the match, Brunel has also been assailed by former Italy player Mirco Bergamasco over losing the dressing room.
"He has failed to create a group, both on and off the pitch," said Bergamasco earlier this week. "He usually refers to only four or five players and forgets the rest. And that's not enough when there are 31.
"When one of these four or five players is missing, the squad loses belief and collapses," added Bergamasco. His brother Mauro, tellingly perhaps, did not make the matchday squad when Brunel announced the team a day after Mirco's remarks.
Brunel, who as forwards coach under Bernard Laporte was part of the French set-up who reached successive World Cup semi-finals in 2003 and 2007, said his team could match the best in the world.
"I came to Italy in 2011 with the goal of turning the team into one that could rival the best in the world," said the 61-year-old. "It has not happened all the time, it has on some occasions, but not often enough to my liking.
"But the final goal was to reach the World Cup quarter-finals (which would be the first time ever). It is still possible, despite the results of late (they lost all their warm-up games, twice to Scotland and once to Wales), which was not what we wished for."
POOL D: FRANCE v ITALY
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