2023 Six Nations: Italy v France

2023 Six Nations: Italy v France

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…

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Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: France v South Africa

A Saturday full of rugby came to an end in Marseille as France hosted South Africa. A hugely physical start saw Faf de Klerk’s early offside give Thomas Ramos an early kick from range, which he despatched with ease for a 3-0 lead. With Willie le Roux back in at 15, South Africa were looking much more comfortable than last week, but things became much harder after 11 minutes as Pieter-Steph du Toit was sent off for a dangerous clean-out to the head of Jonathan Danty. As both teams continued to look to play positive rugby, a turnover by Charles Ollivon caught Kwagga Smith offside for Ramos to double the lead, while the World Champions found their lineout reliability taking a huge hit, and when France finally found themselves with possession in the visitors’ 22, Cyril Baille managed to force himself over from close range. While the French were starting to take hold of the game, they were struggling to deal with the Springboks’ driving maul, and one such maul earned the visitors a penalty just inside the French half which Cheslin Kolbe kicked to put them on the board after 25 minutes, while the next one 5 minutes later saw Siya Kolisi break out as it collapsed to go over for a try without any tackler even getting close. As the half came to a close, Ox Nche was penalised for not rolling away, and Ramos successfully bisected the posts for a 16-10 lead at the break.

Another penalty from Kolbe cut the lead to 3 soon after the restart, but when Faf de Klerk failed to effectively clear his lines under pressure from Cameron Woki, a mighty French maul allowed Thomas Ramos to almost immediately take the lead back out to 6. What had already been a crazy game then took it’s next massive twist, as Antoine Dupont was given a red card for taking out Cheslin Kolbe in the air just 8 minutes into the half, and after a series of penalties in the corner, the South African forwards attacked infield and then he ball went back blind for Willie le Roux to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner, de Klerk kicking the conversion (having taken over kicking duties while Kolbe underwent a HIA) to put the Boks ahead, before kicking a penalty minutes later. France hit back with a Ramos penalty just before the hour. As both sides emptied the benches going into the final half hour, Maxime Lucu and Sekou Macalou just combined to force Kurt-Lee Arendse into touch as he went hunting another try, but the French wing was pinged moments later for getting back to his feet when held, and with both de Klerk and Kolbe off the pitch, Damian Willemse found he target with his penalty. As the game entered the final 10 minutes, South African replacement Deon Fourie was sent to the bin for an offence at the French maul, while Romain Ntamack made way for Mathieu Jalibert, but it was the forwards who put France back ahead, as their siege on the try line saw Sipili Falatea pushed over the line with a pick and go, but a first miss of the night from Ramos left them with just a 1-point lead with 5 minutes remaining. As the clock ticked down, a huge scrum from the French against the depleted Springbok pack allowed Thomas Ramos to kick the lead to 4 points. South Africa secured the restart, but a crucial turnover from Yoram Moefana won the ball back for Les Bleus and they held out for the final 30 seconds for a 30-26 victory.


One thing that will likely have Fabien Galthié a little worried will be just how effective the Springboks maul was. Despite being a (very big!) man down, the Springboks were making France look like Japan, such was the ease they were making metres with the maul.

Now granted this isn’t France’s ideal pack (or biggest, with players like Paul Willemse missing) and the sheer number or injury-enforced changes made early on won’t have helped, but these were not fringe players packing down against the Springboks and being made to look they they were facing a team 2-3 age grades above them. As the game went on, the French pack had some success themselves with the driving maul, but they still looked at risk whenever the visitors were setting the maul.

France have a wonderful all-round team, but teams with big physical packs will look at those maul and perhaps see a chink in the French armour. The good news is, with almost a year still to go, there is still plenty of time to work on this.

Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way

Is there anybody more underrated in Test rugby than Willie le Roux. Often panned online by fans, and continually looking to be replaced by the coaches, the experienced fullback continues to show his quality when given the chance.

Granted he isn’t the best defensively, but what he does is so vital to the Springboks attack, as he plays the second playmaker role, comfortably coming in at first or second receiver depending on the phase and what the team are looking to do, while when he takes the ball around the 13 channel, there are very few players who will time the simple pass tot he winger so perfectly while making it look so easy.

Right now, South Africa have a serious issue at fly half, but it is notable just how much less of an issue this is when le Roux is there to assist them, as he takes so much pressure off of them and allows them to focus on what they do best—a perfect example being how last week Damian Willemse’s runs with the ball brought the attack to a standstill, while this week they looked like a way to draw in defenders and look for a gap to exploit.

So go ahead and keep hating him, he may just be the difference between defending the World Cup or losing in the quarterfinals.

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

South Africa v Georgia (Test 1)

Over 600 days after becoming World Champions, South Africa finally made their return to Test rugby with the first of 2 matches against Georgia as their warm-up for facing the British & Irish Lions. The long time without Test rugby certainly showed early on as the team struggled with cohesion and discipline in the first half hour, with Aphelele Fassi’s debut try the one bright spark as Tedo Abzhandadze kicked 3 penalties to put the Lelos ahead. South Africa grew into the game though, and took advantage of Beka Saghinadze’s yellow card to take a 19-9 halftime lead, with tries from Bongi Mbonambi and Cobus Reinach.

As the substitutions began after the break, the strength of the Spingbok pack saw Kwagga Smith go over from 5 metres out after a series of scrum penalties, and after Herschel Jantjies also sniped over from close range, Malcolm Marx completed the scoring with the easiest of finishes as a 5m catch and drive obliterated the Lelos defence and allowed the hooker to simply drop to the floor once over the line, securing a 40-9 victory.

Going for it

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thrilled to see the Springboks constantly turning down the chance for 3 points when they had a penalty and instead going for scrums or kicking for the corner. Often, I can understand going for the 3 to some degree, even if it just to build up a lead and then look to take chances later on, but in this game it always looked as if the Boks would be able to run away with it as they grew into the game, if only due to the face that Georgia were constantly defending, which would tire them out.

This was a warm-up game, and after almost 2 years without a Test match, South Africa needed to take every opportunity to compete in Test match conditions. While the Boks would likely take the 3 points in the Tests, there would be no benefit to waste almost 3 minutes (from the time the penalty is given, including making the decision to go for goal, the time allowed to take the kick—which rarely appears to be policed—and then the time to prepare for the restart) each time a penalty was given in range. Kickers do so much practice, and both Pollard and Jantjies are so experienced, a Test match without going for the 3 points will not harm them, whereas going for the corner and scrums allowed the Springboks to maximise the time they had actually playing rugby and working through any issues.

Don’t be surprised to see more of the same in the second Test, but a much more pragmatic approach once they face the Lions.

Power players

The Georgian scrum is one of the most feared weapons in the game, so to see it given such a torrid time by the Springboks shows the quality they have. While Trevor Nyakane struggled a little in the first half, Ox Nché held up well against the Lelos, but the true damage was done when superstars Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe came on.

While Kitshoff won a series of penalties against his opposite number in the build-up to Kwagga Smith’s try, Malherbe was dominant on his side, often getting a push on to wheel or crumple the Georgian pack. It brought back immediate memories of the Rugby World Cup final, where he put on a clinic at the scrum and was only really dealt with to some degree once Joe Marler came on.

It’s going to be a tough test for whoever wins the 2 loosehead spots in the Test 23—currently between Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland or Mako Vunipola. If one of these players goes down injured, it will be interesting to see if Gatland goes to Joe Marler (who never received an email to say he was in contention for the squad) given his recent form and his Man of the Match performance in the Premiership final.

Weakness exploited

This may sound very harsh, but until Georgia sort out their lineout defence, they are not going to win a match against a Tier 1 Nation.

The Lelos’ issues defending the maul were apparent during the Autumn Nations Cup and things looked no better in this match, with both Bongi Mbonambi and Malcom Marx scoring from 5m catch and drives—Marx’s try especially looking like a walk in the park for the Springbok pack—and a number of other penalties being given away for collapsing the maul.

But it wasn’t just the maul this time that caused issues for the Lelos, as they gave away as many penalties at the lineout itself. Whether it was a tactic to try and disrupt the South Africans setting up the maul, or an attempt to win the ball back so they didn’t have to defend the maul, the Georgians were putting a man up to compete at most lineouts, but they were then giving away penalties for being too aggressive and taking the man in the air or bringing their jumper too far across the mid-line.

I find it hard to believe that these lineout and maul issues are down to just the players and thin that the Lelos desperately need to get someone in to sort out their lineout defence, or this will be a weakness that every team uses against them.

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