France came from behind four times to get their RBS Six Nations off to a winning start, but Italy managed the game better for much of the match and were desperately unlucky not to win it.
Italy led for 45 minutes in all, but two long-range second-half penalties by Jules Plisson put France ahead in the last five minutes and when Italy set up a chance to snatch a win in stoppage time with a drop-goal, Sergio Parisse of all people put the shot well wide from 40 metres out and France were home and hosed.
Fly-half Carlo Canna, who was off injured by then, had given Italy an early lead on his Six Nations debut with a drop-goal, but France went ahead after 14 minutes when their new wing, Virimi Vakatawa, rounded off a fluid attacking move by tiptoeing brilliantly just inside the left-hand touchline to score the game’s first try.
Italy were soon back in front when Parisse was driven over from a lineout, but France were ahead 10-8 by half-time thanks to a Damien Chouly try created by smart thinking by Gael Fickou as the centre took a penalty quickly, spotting an overlap on the right.
After the break Italy had a purple patch. A Canna penalty put them back in the lead then a try scored and converted by the young fly-half after great approach work from Edoardo Gori and Parisse made it 18-10 with 45 minutes gone.
France created another really well-worked try in the 60th minute, scored in the left-hand corner by Hugo Bonneval and brilliantly converted by Plisson. Eight minutes later the hosts were back in front with a long-range penalty from Plisson, then Italy went 21-20 up thanks to a penalty from Kelly Haimona, but Plisson hit the target one more time after Parisse was penalised for not releasing the ball, and Les Bleus hung on for the last five minutes.
Italy’s game management: They ended up on the losing side, but Italy played clever, controlled rugby for much of this match and were within a whisker of securing their first win at the Stade de France. Half-backs Canna and Gori come from different clubs but worked well together and Parisse had a terrific game.
Virimi Vakatawa: The wing was winning his first cap and a roar of excitement echoed around the stadium every time he got the ball. He scored a try just 14 minutes into the game, thanks to some great footwork, while his power and pace was also evident at other times in the game. He is already a crowd favourite – just what the French fans need.
First-half place kicking: Italy fly-half Canna and France scrum-half Sebastien Bezy missed five penalties and conversions between them in the first half. Most of the kicks were not difficult and both players should have been able to do a lot better.
Parisse’s final option: Why on earth did Sergio Parisse decide to drop back into the pocket to attempt what would have been a match-winning drop-goal? Yes, fly-half and kicker Canna was off the pitch by then (presumably injured) but there must have been other contenders to take the kick in the Italian back line. As it was Parisse’s attempt went well wide from 40 metres out and France won the day.
Crucial penalty decision: The penalty which Plisson kicked to win the match should have been reversed as the tackle which Parisse was penalised at was in fact a high one. JP Doyle is an excellent referee, and it was great to see him using some French to shout instructions to the home side, but he got this one wrong and it was an important call.
54: The percentage of territory Italy enjoyed. They also had 52% possession, but could not convert either advantage into a win.
94: The metres made by Sergio Parisse, more than any other player on either team.
116: Martin Castrogiovanni’s total of Italian caps, a new national record, after he came on as a replacement.
France: M Medard (J-M Doussain 77); H Bonneval, G Fickou (M Mermoz 56), J Danty, V Vakatawa; J Plisson, S Bezy (M Machenaud 68); E Ben Arous (U Atonio 50), G Guirado, R Slimanim (J Poirot 50), P Jedrasiak (A Flanquart 72), Y Maestri, W Lauret, D Chouly, L Picamoles (Y Camara 15).
Tries (3): Vakatawa, Chouly, Bonneval
Pens: Plisson 2
Italy: D Odiete ( L McLean 55); L Sarto, M Capagnaro, G Garcia (K Haimona 68), M Bellini; C Canna (G Palazzani 77), E Gori; A Lovotti (M Zanusso 65), O Gega (D Giazzon 56), L Cittadini (M Castrogiovanni 65), G Fabio Biagi (V Bernabo 43), M Fuser, F Minto, A Zanni, S Parisse (Capt).
Tries (2): Parisse, Canna
Penalties (2): Canna, Haimona
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Referee JP Doyle (England)