Saturday 27 May 2017

Wooden spoon again for Azzurri as fox goes to ground

Italy 18-40 France

France's Brice Dulin tries to escape the grasp of Italy's Carlo Canna. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
France's Brice Dulin tries to escape the grasp of Italy's Carlo Canna. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Simon Briggs

Life on the road has not been too comfortable recently for France, who came to Italy having lost their last five away matches in the Six Nations. But that road is smoother to navigate when it is a Roman road.

The Stadio Olimpico went out of its way to be hospitable, as the hosts rolled off 53 tackles, conceded four tries and failed to apply their controversial "no-ruck" tactic with any consistency or success.

Italy's fly-half Carlo Canna escapes from a tackle during Italy's encounter with France in Rome. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Italy's fly-half Carlo Canna escapes from a tackle during Italy's encounter with France in Rome. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

France's victory was significant to their prospects at the next World Cup. Had they lost, they would have slipped back from eighth place in the world rankings to the dreaded ninth spot, which condemns its occupant to the so-called 'Pool of Death' in 2019. But it was not just the result that will have encouraged the couple of thousand French fans who made the trip.

This was a fast and flowing performance, undermining the theory that Guy Noves is presiding over a lumpen, power-based outfit. On a glorious spring day in Rome, the conditions favoured running rugby and the interplay between French forwards and backs was highly effective.

Afterwards, the Italy coach Conor O'Shea continued to call for patience and support. He has inherited an inexperienced team here and is looking for that moment when they catch a break. He must have thought that Italy's early try - the fastest in the tournament to date at just 150 seconds into the match - might be that moment.

But the French had soon replied with a sinuous, length-of-the-field move that began with recalled full-back Brice Dulin on his own five-metre line and finished only a matter of seconds later with centre Gael Fickou selling the cheekiest of dummies and strolling in unopposed.

Luis Picamoles and Brice Dulin of France tackle Giorgio Bronzini of Italy during the RBS Six Nations match between Italy and France on Saturday. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Luis Picamoles and Brice Dulin of France tackle Giorgio Bronzini of Italy during the RBS Six Nations match between Italy and France on Saturday. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

In between, the French-Fijian winger Virimi Vakatawa had applied his sevens expertise to carve through a broken field with breathtaking poise and balance.

Three more tries would follow in the second half. Vakatawa and Louis Picamoles both rumbled over from short range through some questionable Italian defence, while Dulin brought up the bonus point when he rounded his marker with three minutes to play. The statistics showed that France gained a massive 870 metres from 138 carries.

"The first one was a terrible try to concede," said O'Shea. "They went the length of the pitch in two passes, basically, and that was too easy to give away when you see how hard we were working overall.

"We get scored against too easily. Whereas when we work hard, we often don't get anything. The final scoreline is hard to take because we're competitive people. But if you watch the match back you will see that we played a lot of good rugby and didn't actually get reward."

Italy definitely showed some good rugby in the third minute, as fly-half Carlo Canna found himself running at the French line from just five metres out. Canna dummied the first man, slid between two more and then offloaded for his captain Sergio Parisse to crash over from short range.

Yet there would be too little of that kind of subtlety in a whole-hearted but ultimately blunt-edged performance. The genius that is Parisse did produce one outrageous conjuring trick, delivering the ball behind his back like a juggler. This sleight of hand should have put Angelo Esposito over in the corner, but Parisse's less gifted colleagues botched their passing and butchered the opportunity.

O'Shea raised no objections to the way the New Zealand referee, Ben O'Keeffe, responded to "the fox" - Italy's codename for the ruck-free tactic that had so unhinged England a fortnight ago. Perhaps O'Keeffe was less sympathetic to the general concept than Romain Poite had been, once penalising scrum-half Edoardo Gori when he tried to nip round the flanks.

But then the surprise value was only ever going to work for one match, and O'Shea had burned that card at Twickenham.

We saw a very limited reprise yesterday, but Gori was the only player deputed to make those counter-intuitive raids into French territory.

On his next attempt to sow confusion, Gori saw opposite number Baptiste Serin pick up and weave through a gap in the Italian line, making at least 30 metres. After that, the fox remained firmly in his hole.

Italy: E Padovani (L Sperandio 72); A Esposito, M Campagnaro (T Benvenuti 65), L McLean, G Venditti; C Canna, E Gori (G Bronzini 50); A Lovotti (S Panico 66), L Ghiraldini (T Apie 62), L Cittadini (D Chistolini 31), M Fuser (G Biagi 57), D van Schalkwyk, B Steyn, S Favaro (M Mbanda 50), S Parisse (capt).

France: B Dulin; N Nakaitaci, R Lamerat (F Trinh-Duc 70), G Fickou, V Vakatawa (Y Huget 64); C Lopez, B Serrin (A Dupont 72); C Baille (U Atonio 54), G Guirado (capt) (C Tolofua 55), R Slimani (E Ben Arous 54), J Ledevedec (P Jedrasiak 59), Y Maestri, F Sanconnie, K Gourdon, L Picamoles (B Le Roux 72).

Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (NZ)

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