It may feel like the 2020 Six Nations only just finished, but the 2021 edition kicked off today in Rome as Italy hosted Rome at the Stadio Olimpico.
The French came into the match one of the favourites to win the tournament, and they soon found themselves on the Italian try line, with Dylan Cretin managing to stretch out an arm to dot the ball down over the line under the posts after 6 minutes, Matthieu Jalibert adding the conversion. Jalibert soon added a penalty to the score before his opposing number Paolo Garbisi kicked three points of his own. Italy were missing a number of big names but playing positive rugby and put together a strong series of phases in the French 22, which came to a disappointing end as Michele Lamaro knocked on as he tried to run a crash ball line off a ruck. Italian indiscipline then proved costly as the resultant French scrum became a French lineout in midfield, and another unnecessary penalty gave the French a lineout in the Italian 22. The French set up the maul and as it stalled, Antoine Dupont recognised that Stephen Varney was not covering behind the defensive line, leading to him kicking into the sizeable in-goal area for Gaël Fickou to dot down. Dupont proved decisive again just minutes later as he hacked on an Italian pass that had gone to ground. The bounce beat Azzurri fullback Jacopo Trulla and favoured Gabin Villière, who offloaded to the supporting Dupont. The scrum half was stopped just short, but found Arthur Vincent for try number 3, while Jalibert continued his 100% record off the tee. Dupont did end the half with one blot on his record, however, as Stephen Varney came away from a ruck and snuck down a 5m blind side, selling dummies to both Cyril Baille and Dupont before feeding Monty Ioane to go over in the corner, however TMO Karl Dickson rightly adjudged that the final pass was forward, so the half ended with Les Bleus on top 3-24.
Les Bleus were soon back on the offensive after the break and while Jacopo Trulla managed to beat Teddy Thomas to Brice Dulin’s grubber into the in-goal, it only delayed the inevitable as Dulin and Villière countered an Italian kick just minutes later and Dulin beat everyone to Villière’s kick forward before riding Garbisi’s tackle to secure the bonus point. Just minutes later, the French were scoring again, with Thomas on the loop on first phase from a lineout, outpacing Brex with his outside arc and feeding back inside to Dupont for the try. With the next attack, Jalibert snuck through a gap between the Italian locks to feed the supporting Dupont, and the scrum half duly repaid his debt to Thomas by spreading it to the wing for a try of his own, with Jalibert maintaining his 100% record off the tee before being removed. With the result secured within an hour, a deluge of substitutions affected the flow of the game and the Italians found a reason to cheer as Maxime Mbanda turned the ball over and after a couple of phases, the ball came to Luca Sperandio, who chased his own chip and too it on the full to cross for an Italian try, converted by Garbisi. However, there was time for one more try as France earned a scrum 5m out from the Italian try line. The ball went blind and Brice Dulin bravely ignored the impending smash from Ioane and calmly flicked the ball through his hands to put Thomas over for his second try of the game. Louis Carbonel was unable to kick the conversion from out wide, but it didn’t matter in the long run as France ran out 10-50 winners.
With so many big names missing – including Jake Polledri, Matteo Minozzi, Braam Steyn and Michele Campagnaro – this was never going to be an easy match for the Azzurri. But rather than do as most do whenever the Six Nations comes around and highlight the score and the negatives of the Italian performance, I am instead going to look at the positive of how they have improved from last tournament.
Frequently in 2020, I found myself lamenting the lack of variation in the Italian attack, with everything either being a 1-off pass to the pack or spreading the ball wide without earning it. However, with exciting stand-off Paolo Garbisi and recognised centres in Marco Zanon and Argentine-born debutant Juan Ignacio Brex, Italy looked much more dangerous and varied in midfield, with all 3 making breaks, while there was also much more variety to how the forwards were getting the ball, with crash balls off both 9 and 10 as well as forwards tipping the ball on or playing it to the backs.
And it was clear that this variety was having an impact, with Italy looking dangerous when able to put the phases together and forcing breaks both out wide and in midfield. There is still room for improvement though, as the players making the break were often lacking the support to fully take advantage of the situation, while the attack also appeared to be stymied by the introduction of Carlo Canna for the injured Zanon early in the second half. With such a young team playing great attacking rugby without their stars, that elusive win may not come in this tournament, but I don’t think that it is far away.
There wasn’t much to criticize Les Bleus about in this game, but one thing could be their kicking game. While many of the kicks were competitive, there was also a strikingly large number that found themselves sailing and bouncing into the sizeable in-goals and even over the dead ball line. It could have been even worse at many stadia as the Stadio Olimpico in-goals almost doubled the length of the pitch, so even more scrums could have been given away in dangerous areas had they been playing on another pitch.
Maybe it was a tactic to kick deep and force the Azzurri to play from deep, maybe it was unfamiliarity with the ball – the balls have shown some horrifically unpredictable bounces over these first 2 games – or maybe it was a bit too much exuberance from the youngsters, but the French need to remember that their players can already kick the living **** out of the ball and may want to work on taking a little length off their kicks during training this week, otherwise a more dangerous team could take advantage of the free possession and territory.