The final game of round 1 took place on Sunday as France made the trip to Rome. The Azzurri came into the tournament of the back of one of their most successful seasons in years, which included ending a run of 32 losses in this tournament with victory in Cardiff, bu soon found themselves behind as Thibaud Flament’s charge down of Stephen Varney’s kick bounced back into his hands for him to canter in untouched. The Azzurri continued to play positively though and began to claw back the score with a penalty from Tommaso Allan, starting in place of the injured Paolo Garbisi. However they shot themselves in the foot trying to overplay their exit, and were only reprieved by Charles Ollivon fumbling the ball as he reached ou across the try line. However the French were soon attacking the line again, and when Damian Penaud and Ange Capuozzo both contacted each other in the air competing for Romain Ntamack’s crosskick, Thomas Ramos was backing up to dot down the loose ball, though he was unable to add the extras from the tee. Allan continued to keep the score close with another penalty after some impressive handling, but again Italy were let off at the kickoff as Antoine Dupont charged down Allan’s clearance kick, only for the ball to bounce right through the dead ball area. However it was just a temporary delay, as a turnover from Grégory Alldritt once again gave Les Bleus possession around the 22, and the drew in the defence for Ntamack to find debutant Ethan Dumortier for a try with a perfect crosskick. Italy continued to respond with positive attacking play, and with their next penalty on the half hour went to the corner, and when the maul crabbed infield, Stephen Varney played the ball blind to the late-looping Capuozzo, whose step just held Alldritt and allowed him to sneak in at the corner. And then just before the half, a pair of penalties against France allowed Italy to go from their own 22 to the French 22 with 2 kicks to touch, and 15 phases of pressure eventually drew a penalty from Paul Willemse, which Allan kicked for a 14-19 halftime score.
After a solid defensive start to the second period, it was Thomas Ramos who opened the scoring for the half with a penalty, while Allan responded with an inch-perfect kick tot he corner from halfway with his next penalty to set up a 5m lineout for the Azurri pack, and after their drive splintered the French pack, Charles Ollivon was adjudged to have illegally collapsed the maul just short of the line, giving them the penalty try and a 10-minute spell in the sin bin for the former French captain. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the French were not content to slow their play down, and Damian Penaud came close to a try as he outpaced Luca Morisi in the chase to a kick into the in-goal, only to knock-on under pressure from the centre as both reached for the ball at the same time. And after Ramos missed a penalty of his own, Allan kicked the hosts into a 24-22 lead as Ollivon returned to the pitch just after the hour. However the lead did not last long, as a series of errors and penalties from Italy gave France the ball in the Italian 22, and a lovely carry through contact and offload from Romain Taofifenua to his fellow replacement Matthieu Jalibert allowed the stand-off to step back inside the overcommitting Italian defence and drop over the line. Taofifenua’s next involvement wasn’t so positive, though, as a tackle off the ball on Edoardo Padovani gave Allan a kick at goal, but the ball ended up drifting just wide of the posts. But as the clock entered the red, Tommy Allan was able to kick a penalty to the corner, but the resulting maul became a mess and Matthew Carley blew the final whistle and a 24-29 victory for Les Bleus.
The Azzurri are playing some lovely rugby, and are arguably looking the best they have in the Six Nations for some time, which given the quality of players missing (Garbisi, Polledri, Ioane to name just 3) is a great sign. Unfortunately, at times they have overplayed, especially in their own half.
France’s opener came from a charge down of Stephen Varney’s kick, and as it was intended to be a surprise chip over the breakdown rather than a clearance, it meant that he had no men in place extending the breakdown or obstructing the blockers, making it easy for Flament to charge down. It’s a risky play against a defence that was pretty well set, and this time it backfired.
And on the subject of backfiring, Italy were just constantly shooting themselves in the foot at restarts. Against Samoa, I identified how Italy are now dealing with restarts by setting up a ruck in the middle of the pitch and looking to see if there is an attacking play on if the defence does not work around the breakdown, but the first time trying this saw them try to play from deep and a handling error in their 22 gifted France possession just short of the line which should have resulted in a try for Charles Ollivon, while France clearly knew what was coming when Dupont charged down Allan’s clearance, Italy again getting lucky that the ball bounced dead.
There is a time and a place to attack. Italy have shown they can, now they just need to learn to be pragmatic and not overplay, or they will be putting themselves under undue pressure.
When teams watch back the footage of this match, one thing that I’m sure they’ll be highlighting will be France’s struggles against the Italian maul.
While they did successfully get up to spoil or steal a handful of throws, when the Italian pack secured the ball and set up the maul, they struggled to stop it at source and found themselves going backwards So it was no surprise to see Italy start kicking to the corner, and it paid dividends for the Azzurri, who scored twice off the maul, once attacking the blind side that opened up as they came infield, the other splitting the French pack in two before Ollivon illegally brought them down as they drove for the line. Honestly, I’m surprised that after the penalty try, they abandoned the driving maul until the final play, which was the only time France really succeeded in defending the maul all game!
What makes this a real issue is just how poor their discipline was today. If they are going to give away penalties, then teams will look to challenge them with the catch and drive, knowing that at longer range they may force another penalty, or if nothing else, draw in the defence to create space for the backs to attack. And in the 22, that’s when they will find themselves under real pressure…
This year, I’m doing Movember a little different with my Movember Marathon.
You can find all the details on my announcement.
Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.
Help me to change the face of men’s health!