France 32 Italy 10
By Brendan O’Brien, Twickenham
A momentous day for the 2015 Rugby World Cup ended on a forgettable enough note tonight with France claiming a comfortable victory in Ireland’s Pool D against an Italian side that never came close to beating their neighbours for the third time in six attempts.
If the scoreboard was convincing then the performance was not. Both sides lacked discipline and mistakes littered the game throughout. The two French tries were scored by props and the other pair needed to claim a bonus point never looked like coming.
Earlier events in Gloucester, where Georgia surprised Tonga, and in Brighton where Japan produced the biggest shock in the event’s 28-year history by beating the Boks, had sprinkled the London venue with an even giddier air of expectation than expected on Saturday night.
Rarely the most accommodating of venues for either side, England’s HQ was taken over by a respectable number of Italian fans, but the vast majority of the 76,232 filling out the place were backing ‘Les Bleus’. The rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’ must have reverberated as far as Paris.
It was far from vintage France, though.
They never built on a 22-point lead with half an hour to play although Philippe Saint-Andre’s side now has the opportunity to use outings against Romania and Canada to fine-tune and offer game time to their full squad before facing Ireland in Cardiff.
Italy, who beat France in the 2011 and 2013 Six Nations, were without their injured, talismanic captain and number eight Sergio Parisse and they lost experienced centre Andrea Masi after just eleven minutes on a night when they continually fell foul of the zealous eye of referee Craig Joubert.
A cagey first-half added just six penalties to the scoreboard, all bar one of them claimed by France, with Joubert penalising the Italians an eye-watering ten times. France fared somewhat better with ‘only’ six penos conceded, but it all made for a staccato 40 minutes.
The full count at the finish was 36: 19-17 against Italy.
Frederick Michalak, the enigmatic out-half on whose shoulders French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has rested his hopes, kicked two straightforward efforts that came back off a post while his opposite number Tommaso Allen fluffed one wide, too. Cobwebs? Maybe.
France did touch down over the Italian try line after ten minutes, but Noa Nakaitaci’s effort was disallowed when it was adjudged that he had dropped the ball just prior to planting it on the turf after Louis Picamole’s one-handed pass bumped it into his path off an Italian body.
It was, in fact, a carbon copy of events 24 hours earlier in the same stadium when Nikola Matawalu’s effort for Fiji against England was scrubbed out. In both situations, the kicker was poised to strike the conversion only for the incident to be replayed from the key, revealing angle at the last moment.
It was a let-off for Italy, even if France were playing with an advantage and Michalak struck the penalty, but they were struggling at the scrum and struggling to engineer attacking rhythm with Allen repeatedly doing an about turn with ball in hand in the vain search for an outlet.
He got clobbered for his tardiness more often than not.
A clobbering is exactly what Italy faced soon after the restart with Michalak adding another penalty. A subsequent Nakaitaci break and Guilhem Guirado trundle ended inches from the line before Michalak delivered a delicious dink kick for Rabah Slimani to collect and touch down.
Michalak added the two.
Italy came agonisingly close to a try of their own 50 minutes in but the TMO – him again – adjudged that scrum-half Edoardo Gori had knocked on before dotting down, but France failed to clear their lines and Giovanbattista Venditti squeezed over in the corner from a close-in ruck not long after.
Allen’s conversion still left them 25-10 in arrears, but neither side could eradicate the mistakes and hit their groove from there on in while France had the added headache of losing wing Yoann Huget to what looked like a serious leg injury.
There was just over ten minutes remaining when replacement prop Nicolas Mas rumbled far enough to touch the butt of Italy’s post and claim France’s second try, but the French have much to ponder as they go forward. For Italy, it looks like being a short stay in England.
France: S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, A Dumoulin, N Nakaitaci; F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani; P Pape, Y Maestri; T Dusatoir, D Chouly, L Picamoles.
Replacements: G Fickou for Huget (55); M Parra for Tillous-Borde (57); B Kayser for Guirado and V Debaty for Ben Arous (both 61); N Mas for Slimani (63); B Le Roux for Picamoles (66); A Flanquart for Maestri (69); R Tales for Michalak (76).
Italy: L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, A Masi, G Venditti; T Allen, E Gori; M Aquero, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni; Q Geldenhuys, J Furno; A Zanni, F Minto, S Vunisa.
Replacements: E Bacchin for Masi (11); L Cittadini for Castrogiovanni and M Rizzo for Aquero (50); S Favaro for Minto (62); A Manici for Ghiraldini (63); G Palazzari for Gori (64); V Bernabo for Furno (72); C Canna for Allen (80).
Referee: C Joubert.