Tuesday 12 December 2017

France quickly into their stride



Having left the rugby world confused and amused by their last campaign, the World Cup, France began life afresh in the Six Nations in much more straightforward style. They were simple, direct and happy. Not perfect, but as starts to campaigns go, this was eminently satisfactory.

Italy, too, had reasons to be content. Jacques Brunel, their new coach, has a fine track record of improving humble players, and his impact is clear. He wanted Italy to be more balanced in approach, and there were signs of a new willingness to counter-attack from deep, through Andrea Masi, and to try to pass out of contact.

It will take time to perfect positive crafts and France's defence on this opening day was too solid and aggressive to let Italy shine, but there were encouraging signs.

As ever, Sergio Parisse was involved in everything good forged by his side. One thing the new coach does not have to change is the contribution of his No 8 and captain. While his team began to flag in the last quarter, Parisse seemed to cover even more acres.

Philippe Saint-Andre, like Brunel, was enjoying his first day of action.

Unlike Italy's coach, he had had his new charges for only six days. It is the quirkiness of the Top 14 to keep the French players in club action while the other five nations can go into camp. Perhaps that was why he tinkered with the World Cup team as a little as possible, preferring to change the humour of the squad, not the personnel.

The few changes he made were all pleasing. Louis Picamoles ran hard and fast with the ball, less upright than he had been in New Zealand. His break from the scrum, with possession stolen on the Italian put-in, was a picture of alertness, with a hand-off to give him freedom and a straightening of his run to give Julien Malzieu a half-chance.

The Clermont Auvergne wing immediately converted this into a full chance, with a hand-off of his own on Edoardo Gori and a surge past Giovanbattista Venditti and Masi. Malzieu was in for Alexis Palisson, and this was why. He touched the ball in this first match as many times as Venditti has all season with Aironi.

Italy had already been exposed when Aurelien Rougerie went straight between Leonardo Ghiraldini and Andrea Lo Cicero.

By half-time France, through those two tries and a penalty by Dimitri Yachvili, were ahead, but Francois Trinh-Duc was about to let Italy back into the game. The outhalf messed up a restart kick and it gave the away side valuable momentum at the start of the second period. The sequence of attacks ended with Kris Burton, who had already landed a penalty and a fine drop goal, kicking a penalty. This was anything but done and dusted.

France were stung into life. Trinh-Duc put the ball over the defence, keeping the movement going with a delightful flick off the outside of his boot. Rougerie kneed the ball forward for Vincent Clerc to score.

This time they were rewarded, Wesley Fofana capping a grand second half on his debut with a try, a simple finish after a bout of pressure close to the Italian line. Quintin Geldenhuys had gone to the bin and the French forwards softened up the tiring defence for Fofana to finish from short range.

The new boy summed up the gnarled old team: fit and enthusiastic and far removed from mutineers who skulked around the World Cup. Only one thing was unchanged, the contribution of the outstanding Thierry Dusautoir. The world's player of the year in 2011 is laying down a new challenge in '12. As are his team. They are into their stride ominously early.

Scorers -- France: Rougerie, Malzieu, Clerc, Fofana tries; Yachvili 2 pens, 2 cons. Italy: Burton 2 pens, Botes pen.

France : Medard; Clerc, Rougerie (Mermoz 75), Fofana, Malzieu; Trinh-Duc (Beauxis 75), Yachvili (Parra 62); Debaty (Poux 62), Servat (Szarzweski 55), Mas (Debaty 75), Pape, Nallet (Maestri 51), Dusautoir (capt), Bonnaire, Picamoles (Harinordoquy 65)

Italy: Masi; Venditti, Benvenuti, Sgarbi (Canale 56), Mclean; Burton (Botes 56), Gori (Semenzato 75); Lo Cicero (Cittadini 63), Ghiraldini (D'Apice 75), Castrogiovanni, Van Zyl (Bortolami 56), Geldenhuys, Zanni, Barbieri (Favaro 67), Parisse

Referee: N Owens (Wales)


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