Sergio Parisse ok
His playing career now behind him, Sergio Parisse today finds himself the lineout coach at Toulon.

Few men are better placed than Parisse, the former Azzurri captain who spent a lifetime on the fields of France, to cast an eye over the new Italy and their momentum in the Guinness Men’s Six Nations.

His new life began in the summer, after retiring with yet another trophy - the Challenge Cup, won against Glasgow Warriors - claimed in the red and black of Toulon, after the years spent in Paris with Stade Français and Italian beginnings in Treviso.

"These are intense days, with a lot of work, but I like it a lot and I'm really satisfied," says the 40-year-old. "You discover new aspects all the time. When you play, the vision you have is different and maybe a bit limited, while now I'm experiencing from the inside many situations that I didn't imagine so much, like the hours of work and planning. As a player it is perhaps easier, while as a coach you have to evaluate a million things.”

Next weekend, on Sunday 25th February, Italy will be in Lille facing France: the two countries that, rugby-wise, have played a major part in his personal history.

"I won't be there because we play Saturday in Pau with Toulon and then on Sunday I will go to London to work with ITV. I worked with them during the last World Cup and it's something I enjoy doing. Also, I've caught up with a lot of former players that I faced as an opponent, like Brian O'Driscoll, Jonny Wilkinson, Jamie Roberts, Sam Warburton, Rory Best, who I've gotten to know better off the field."

Italy will arrive at round three of the Championship very much a work in progress; one that did well against England, but then never got going against Ireland.

"Because of how it went against Ireland, I don’t think Italy should think about the game that France will play, about the difficulties they will encounter, but instead about what they can do and what they can control. I heard what was said after the Dublin game and everyone agreed that there were a lot of areas where we need to improve - first of all when we’re in possession, as some of the touches were inaccurate, and the scrum suffered at times.

“It must be said that they were playing against what is perhaps the strongest team - or one of the strongest teams - in the world at the moment and it was easy to predict a very difficult game. Then beyond the result, we have to rethink the performance, which was not up to the mark, but I think the boys are the first to be aware of this and they will therefore want to redeem themselves and show the true face of Italy.”

France themselves do not arrive in full pomp for this match. The victory against Scotland was not brilliant and after the convincing defeat at the hands of Ireland in Marseille, a lot of criticism came the way of Fabien Galthié's management. All this, coupled with the World Cup early-exit hangover that still appears to be a factor behind Les Bleus’ traditional lack of oomph.

"It's a bit of a classic, though, in French rugby: when you win everything goes well, when things don't go well then you immediately start criticising the coach and staff,” is Parisse’s assessment. “You have to think that this is the first tournament without a charismatic player like Antoine Dupont, captain and perhaps the best in the world as well as one who can make a difference.

“Playing against Ireland first up was not easy and they were in trouble, which was exacerbated by the red card. It's part of the game that after a bad game and with a disappointing World Cup behind us, there is a bit of pressure on the coaching staff, which is also new in some areas. Galthié has, however, been given confidence until the next World Cup and will need time to find the right formula.”

One of France’s main protagonists, a specialist in the role that was once played by the Azzurri legend himself, is number eight Grégory Aldritt, who will be missing against Italy. Injured in the match against Scotland, a few names are being tossed around as his potential replacement.

"Alldritt has shown great consistency, which I think is the trademark of great champions. He may not be a flashy or spectacular player, but he always does his job, he is a hard worker and if he has been chosen as captain - to take over from someone like Dupont - it means that he certainly has strong leadership and a certain weight within the dressing room.

“Among the alternatives could be Charles Ollivon, whom I know very well having played alongside him, and I’m now coaching him now at Toulon. He took over as captain in Edinburgh, a role he had already played in the past, and he knows how to play in that position. Perhaps more than Cros, who isn’t a true specialist in that role, I would also consider Toulouse's Alexandre Roumat. He’s been used as a second row but with Stade plays at eight and is among the best in the Top 14, as well as being very good in the lineout. And then I'd also consider Esteban Abadie, another Toulon boy whom I know well and who could take his chance very well.”

On the other side, Italy find themselves without two starting back rowers in Sebastian Negri and Lorenzo Cannone, which could see the redeployment of Michele Lamaro at number eight - a captain who took over from Parisse himself with the national team.

"Not knowing him well and not having been part of this group, I don't think it's fair to comment on his leadership. I can't talk about his charisma, but everyone has described him to me as a very good player and a good guy and I can see that he is someone who is committed, who always gives his all and tries to motivate his teammates. In general, the Italian back row is an area of strength, and we will see what choices Quesada makes. Injuries can also open up opportunities for interesting new guys.

"You always have to consider that this is a group of young guys who still have a lot to prove. I don't like to make comparisons, but I have had the opportunity to play with many in the division and if I think of guys like Mauro Bergamasco and Alessandro Zanni, they are players who have made more than 100 appearances for the national team. Now there are good players, of quality, but with a long way to go. In the analysis and approach we must also be careful not to praise them too much - a aspect characteristic that is typically Italian, but I’d also say the same about Latin people in general.

“It takes continuity and consistency and, apart from Sebastian Negri, who is more experienced, a lot has to be built up. I hope they get to play at this level for another ten, twelve years given their age. Today there is perhaps more choice and a lot of potential, but you have to prove your worth in being able to impose yourself against other back rowers. Just think of those from Ireland, the likes of Doris, van der Flier etc: they are effective and consistent all the time. Let's give them time to be able to prove themselves with performances.”

Italy v France is, for Sergio Parisse - 142 international caps for Italy but a club career spent mostly in the Top 14 - is something of a derby.

"It's always a particular challenge for me, of course. I have too often taken beatings from France, but fortunately I have also managed to get some satisfaction, like the victories in 2011 and 2013.  These matches are always intense and beautiful. We almost won in Paris, but ended up losing by a narrow margin and I tried a drop goal at the end. In France there’s always a lot of passion for this match. It’s got a rich history and also for them it’s a game that’s different to the others. France approach the game knowing full well that they are a strong side, but every now and then it was nice for us to get together in the dressing room after a win and let that achievement sink in."

There is a general connection between Parisse and new Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada, in that both are from Argentina, but it strengthens when you recall that Quesada was Parisse’s coach at Stade Français.

Parisse recalls an “extremely serious and professional” Quesada from their Stade days. “He has a great willingness to make himself available and get involved. He's only just started this role, but slowly he will get to grips with it all: the Federation, the staff, the players. I saw some World Cup matches with him and even then he spoke Italian, which may seem trivial to some, but which I consider very important as a demonstration of recognition and respect for the national team.

“His game adapts well to the new path taken by Italy, which now has three very valuable backs such as Tommaso Menoncello, Ignacio Brex, Paolo Garbisi and Monty Ioane, who allow them to play a style that’s less reliant on the forwards than it’s traditionally been. I think Gonzalo is starting to work on some tactical aspects that are already being seen, such as footwork and their territorial game.

“However, he's a coach who doesn't look for excuses, and he questions himself first. I am convinced that he is the right person for this group. When we spoke, I told him that he was taking over a team with a lot of potential and that he will have players who will arrive at the next Rugby World Cup with an age of 26 to 29 years old - therefore able to be in the middle of their maturation period, with many international matches behind them and with a team that’s very competitive and capable of winning several matches".

Does Parisse, now that he has embarked on his new life as coach, see himself in an Azzurri tracksuit one day? “I haven’t set myself that as a goal, but just as as as a player, I want to have the same motivation to the max also as a coach,” he replies. “I started this path always with humility, but also with great determination and motivation. I hope one day to be a great coach, while fully aware that this is something I will have to be able to prove, and I hope to see myself with a national team.”

France v Italy, Stade Pierre Mauroy, Sunday 25th February, 15:00 GMT.