France Edge Past Impressive Italy

Italy 24 vs France 29

France narrowly avoided a shock in Rome as Matthieu Jalibert’s late try edged them past an impressive Italian side. Italy had fought back brilliantly, overturning a 13-point deficit to lead the game as it headed into the final quarter. For France, it represents something of a wake-up call. There were flashes of the sizzling play they treated us to last year, but they lacked their usual precision. Most worrying for France was their ill-discipline, conceding 18 penalties and allowing the Italians easy points and territory. With Shaun Edwards marshalling the French defence, you can guarantee there will be an uncomfortable review session this week. Their poor discipline allowed Italy back into the game after three first-half tries had put them in the ascendancy.

Italy can take a huge amount of pride from their defeat, but there will also be the lingering question of what if? The Italians played with a wonderful ambition that sometimes strayed into recklessness. If the Italians had dealt with the restarts more pragmatically, they might have won. Sadly, they gifted France some easy points, which ultimately cost them dear. However, there is a lot to like about this brave new Italy, some of their attacking play was excellent, intricate and executed right at the line. The Italians could be accused of being overly elaborate with some of their phase play at the time, perhaps hampered by some week one rustiness. It was in the second half when their forwards started to punch some serious holes that they looked especially dangerous.

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The match began at a frenetic pace, with France butchering a counter-attacking opportunity within the first minute. The French looked ominous initially, creating lightning-quick ruck ball while Dupont was his usual menacing self around the fringes. However, their first try came from an Italian mistake; Luke Varney’s box kick was charged down by the lock Thibaud Flament, who showed impressive wheels to sprint over. Varney’s kick was poor, but his guard was non-existent, a problem that plagued Italy all afternoon. Tommy Allan got Italy on the board with a penalty, but the Azzurri engaged in a spot of rugby suicide on the restart, gifting France the ball and only being saved by Grégory Alldritt dropping the ball over the line. France came again, though, and after sucking in the Italian defence through their maul, Thomas Ramos picked up the scraps of Romain Ntamack’s crossfield kick to score. France’s identification of space was impressive through the first half, with a clear tactic to stretch Italy from side to side.

Allan again responded with a penalty, as Italy enjoyed a decent spell of possession without quite penetrating the French defence. Once again, Italy’s inability to exit their 22 caused them problems, gifting France some easy territory that they gleefully exploited. Ntamack again provided the crossfield kick, with the debutant Ethan Dumortier being the beneficiary this time, snaring a try on debut. At 19-6 down, Italy could have easily capitulated, but they showed excellent spirit and, aided by French ill-discipline, they grew into the game. After a concerted spell of pressure in the French 22, Ange Capuozzo was left one-on-one with Aldritt, beating him to the line with a bamboozling in-to-out step. Italy finished the half strongly, finding themselves back in the French 22 after the French conceded two needless line-out penalties in a row (If Shaun Edwards had hair). France’s defence was resolute, but more ill-discipline allowed Allan to slot a penalty and cut France’s lead to five points.

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The second half got off to a similarly frantic start, though Italy did manage something resembling a reasonable exit from their 22. Some French possession led to a penalty which Ramos slotted over, stretching France’s lead to eight points. But Italy hit back hard, and their second try came from a more traditional Italian strength, their maul. Ollivon was charged with bringing the maul down, and Matthew Carley awarded a penalty try and gave Ollivon a yellow card, the ultimate double whammy. France dealt with the sin bin period well, with Damien Penaud almost scoring an awesome solo try. Ramos missed an opportunity to extend France’s lead, and with the clock hovering around the sixty-minute mark, Allan fired over a penalty that gave Italy the lead.

Italy were looking well on top at this point, with their forwards carrying with some real intent, while they had gained an edge at the breakdown, slowing down and even stealing the French ball. The game turned once again with the introduction of the French bench, who provided some much-needed impetus. France again used their maul to suck in Italy’s defence before Gaël Fickou made some hard yards through the middle. They scored in the next phase, the hulking figure of Romain Taofifenua dexterously off-loading to his fellow substitute, Matthieu Jalibert, who gleefully dived over to restore France’s lead. Italy didn’t give in, and Allan missed an opportunity to drag them within two points, but France started to exert more pressure at the breakdown. France’s ill discipline left the door open for Italy into the dying minutes, and Italy set up a maul ten metres out, but some good French spoiling work snuffed out any danger. Carley’s whistle was met with French relief and Italian wistfulness.

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Italy will have a lingering disappointment, but they will take a lot of confidence from the game. They showed they could cause problems with their attack, while their discipline, an Achilles heel in the past, was excellent throughout. Their verve and ambition was commendable and hugely entertaining, though they perhaps played too much rugby in their own half. Individually there were some excellent performances; their back row was outstanding, with Sebastien Negri a menace all afternoon. Loosehead prop Danillo Fischetti carried like an extra flanker while in the centres, Ignacio Brex and Luca Morisi posed a significant threat, and of course, Capuozzo was his usual electric self. Italy will rue their poor exit strategy and falling off too many tackles (37 in total), but they’ll head to Twickenham with a quiet confidence.

France will be relieved to have come through victorious and quietly pleased with the bonus point. It’s a testament to France’s winning mentality that they held on; you can’t help but feel it’s a game they would have lost a couple of years ago. However, they will be hugely disappointed with aspects of their game, especially their whopping penalty count. As coach Fabien Galthié pointed out after the game, ‘It’s something we can correct quickly’. They will need to, as Ireland will ruthlessly exploit any generosity, as they showed against Wales. Their attack looked in decent shape, but they sometimes lacked their usual pinpoint accuracy. Individually their stand-out man was their most capped player, Gaël Fickou, who produced a superb performance, eking out hard yards in attack and showcasing his usual defensive excellence. There will be concerns for France, but ultimately, they got the job done.

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