The 2019 Six Nations reached its final weekend, beginning with a bottom of the table clash between Italy and France. Bonus points in the earlier rounds meant that it was impossible for Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon but there was still plenty of pride to play for. Italy took an early lead through a pair of Tommaso Allan penalties, before Antoine Dupont scored a try and Romain Ntamack gave France a 6-10 halftime lead. Yoann Huget scored early in the second half and though Tito Tebaldi kept things close with a try of his own, France held on for the win and a late score from Damian Penaud confirmed a 14-25 victory for Les Bleus and consigned Italy to another year without a Six Nations victory.
Learning the hard way
Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Tommaso Castello led to Conor O’Shea handing a debut at 13 to 21-year-old Marco Zanon. The Benetton centre has come through the international ranks via the U20s and Emerging Italy team, however did not make his first Pro14 start until September.
That inexperience in professional rugby showed in this match. On one of his first touches of the ball, he tried to arc his run around the French defence but was unable to get to the outside and found himself being bundled into touch too easily. With the score at 6-10 he had the chance to put Italy ahead as he ran onto Allan’s grubber through, only for the ball to bounce off the post and evade his grasp. While the bounce of a rugby ball is always hard to predict, I think many more experienced players would have recognised the chance of the ball hitting the post and – knowing the space they had – slowed their run so that they could react to the ball coming off the post.
Unfortunately for Zanon, that was not the moment people will remember looking back as with the score at 14-20 with just 6 minutes left, Italy worked the ball out to him on the overlap about 7 metres out. While he made it to the line, as he went to ground he allowed Damian Penaud to dislodge the ball and force a knock-on over the line. While it was a great effort from Penaud, it was made easier for him as Zanon dived for the line with the ball in his right hand rather than switching it to his left hand to protect it.
He is not the first and he won’t be the last person to mess up with the game on the line, but this was a game that Italy could and possibly should have won but for his errors. Hopefully he will be able to put this setback behind him and learn from this match.
The kids are alright
France may have had their good and bad moments during this tournament, but one plus point for them has been the development of some of their younger talents.
Demba Bamba was a player I picked as one to watch this tournament. Despite not celebrating his 21st birthday until the day after this match and not even playing in the Top 14 – he currently plays for Brive in Pro D2 but will be playing for Lyon next season – he did not look out of place on the senior international scene. He may have conceded a couple of penalties but this will improve with time, while he is already showing himself as a comfortable ball carrier.
Romain Ntamack has really grown into the tournament. Against Italy, he varied the attacking game well to keep the Italian defence guessing, while also controlling the game and knowing when to take a drop goal to keep the score ticking over. More importantly though, he also took on the role of goal kicker for this match and performed will, despite not even being the first choice kicker at his club. He will certainly have harder tests than against Italy, but this will be a great confidence boost for him and it is a sign that he is growing well into his role with the team.
Damian Penaud is developing into yet another great player on the wing for France. While it probably helped that he was not tested by the Italian kicking game in the same was as against England or Ireland, he looked very assured on the wing and seemed to be getting used to the position. He made a great covering tackle on Marco Zanon and was smart enough to target the ball rather than the player, dislodging it to save a vital try. In attack, his 98 metres made were the more than any other player on the pitch and it was his break that set up Antoine Dupont for his try, while his try in the final minutes secured the victory.
Dupont may not have had the perfect game as he occasionally struggled with forwards getting in his way at the breakdown, but this control of his pack is something that will develop as he continues to play with them… assuming the coaches don’t continue to overhaul the team every other match. He was one of the most exciting 9s in the tournament this year when given some space and his support line off Penaud that led to his try was typical of is playing style and I am sure we will see him getting over the try line plenty more times over the coming years.
The French Wolverine
While many of the younger players impressed in this match, one of the more experienced players also caught my eye. Maxime Médard has been in and out of the national team for years, but in this game I thought he really showed his quality.
Thomas Ramos has made the attack more exciting but has not been the safest defensively or in kick coverage, which is not what you want when you have attack-only Yoann Huget in the back three as well. Médard however was a calming influence at the back, tidying things up and generally making the right decision, while picking his moment to attack to create chaos, such as when he drew in Angelo Esposito and released Penaud with a simple pass to set up Dupont’s try.
With so many young players in the French back line at the moment, the coaches need to continue selecting Médard to increase their chances of success in Japan.