Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dogged Azzurri pull off stunning French coup

Italy 22 France 21

Mike Averis at the Stadio Flaminio

With a dogged display that is becoming less of a rarity from Roman ranks, Italy came from 12 points down in the Stadio Flaminio to beat France for the first time in the Six Nations.

The Italians were behind from the 14th minute until the 74th, when their sometimes erratic kicker Mirco Bergamasco landed a touchline penalty -- his fifth of the afternoon -- to hand Nick Mallett's team victory and their biggest scalp of 11 seasons in the competition.

Barring the eight-try thumping by England at Twickenham, this has been Mallett's best season in charge with a trip to hapless Scotland still to come. For France, it is the end of their dream of taking the championship. They arrived in Rome looking to reduce the points difference of 53 between them and England, but flew home to plan for Saturday's match in Paris, which could be of more interest to Wales.

The first half was furious. Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc rained high balls on to the Italian 22 for Aurelien Rougerie and Yannick Jauzion to chase, much as the French have done all championship. The veteran prop Sylvain Marconnet -- now playing in his third decade of Test rugby -- twice got into the bad books of the referee Bryce Lawrence before the French front row started to scrum the pants off Italy. Wing Yoann Huget was taken out in mid-air before Vincent Clerc brought a brief period of calm, chasing his own chip and beating Gonzalo Canale to the ball to end a move in which Trinh-Duc was obstructed and Huget taken out for a second time without the New Zealand referee noticing anything wrong.

Rougerie came close to making it two a couple of minutes later, the centre losing control as he stretched a long right arm over the line, but a couple of penalties by Bergamasco narrowed the French lead to 8-6 by 30 minutes.

The Italian threat was more forward orientated, with Sergio Parisse everywhere, and by the half-time, with a row going on in the Italian coaches box, everyone seemed delighted to take a breather, although Mallett and his assistant, Alessandro Troncon, were at it again within minutes of the restart.

There was little let up on the pitch either. Parra got a penalty to stretch the lead, but then the scrum-half administered a particularly brutal kick to the Italian teeth when he ghosted up alongside Trinh-Duc for France's second try five minutes after the restart. Julien Bonnaire, the source of much good work, looked to have got himself isolated, but Trinh-Duc handed off a couple of powder-puff tackles before slipping the ball inside.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Italian heads would have dropped, and when Bergamasco missed a couple of kickable penalties, it looked as though things might go that way. But Andrea Masi brought peace to the coaching bench and euphoria to the crowd by getting on the end of a bit of clever work by Tommaso Benvenuti and Fabio Semenzato.

Bergamasco's conversion and a penalty made it a two-point game and the last 20 minutes were set to be a blinder. Parra and Bergamasco swapped penalties to keep the nerves jangling before the wing landed his final kick from 35 yards out, wide on the left.

All that remained was the torture of three reset French scrums in the shadow of the Italian posts before the Azzurri could celebrate. After letting Ireland off the hook and then pushing Wales all the way, Italy now go to Murrayfield looking to repeat their only away win in the Six Nations, the 37-17 victory over Scotland in 2007.

Scorers -- Italy: Masi try; Bergamasco 5 pens, con. France: Clerc try; Parra try, 3 pens, con.

Italy: A Masi; T Benvenuti, G Canale, G Garcia, M Bergamasco; L Orquera (K Burton 57), F Semenzato; S Parisse (capt), R Barbieri (P Derbyshire 57), A Zanni; CA Del Fava, S Dellape (Q Geldenhuys 53); M Castrogiovanni, C Festuccia (L Ghiraldini 47), A Lo Cicero (S Perugini 47).

France: M Medard; Y Huget, A Rougerie, Y Jauzion (D Traille 70), V Clerc; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; S Chabal (I Harinordoquy 56), J Bonnaire, T Dusautoir (capt); L Nallet (J Thion 56), J Pierre; N Mas (L Ducalcon 40), W Servat (G Guirado 61), S Marconnet.

Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand)


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