Damian Penaud was the hero for France as he scored the winning try in a 25-14 win over Italy, minutes after denying Marco Zanon a potentially match-winning score.
The winger was France’s star player throughout, and looked to have won the game when he knocked the ball out of the hands of debutant Zanon six minutes from time.
He then sealed the win two minutes from time, popping up in support after Romain Ntamack collected a high ball and brilliantly offloaded to put him away.
It was cruel on Italy, who dominated large periods of the game, but paid the price for their inability to convert their chances, including two for Zanon.
Italy got the first points on the board when Tommaso Allan slotted a penalty following Félix Lambey going off his feet at a ruck.
They doubled the lead from a huge scrum, earning a penalty which Allan converted to make it 6-0.
France had looked dangerous when they got the ball on their hands, particularly Penaud, but were being hampered by handling errors.
However they hit back in style when Maxime Médard spotted a half-gap, slipped past Sergio Parisse and fed Penaud. The winger raced clear, easily stepped Tito Tebaldi and put Dupont in for the simple try. Ntamack converted from in front of the posts to give France the lead.
Soon after he stretched the lead to four points with a penalty from 30 metres out when Italy had been slow to roll away from a breakdown.
France looked to have settled some early nerves, but the final 20 minutes of the half belonged to Italy.
They saw one chance go begging when Allan’s clever grubber through just evaded Zanon as it came back off the post. The centre, on debut, would have had a simple dot down but for the post’s intervention.
They then had a score disallowed for Braam Steyn, the flanker driving forward but brought down short of the line.
As a result it was France who led 10-6 at the break, with Italy having turned down a number of kickable penalties for no reward.
They changed that tactic in the second half, Allan slotting his third penalty of the afternoon to cut the deficit to a point.
France’s response was immediate. Off the back of a scrum Ntamack stepped through a gap and put France on the front foot. It was recycled quickly and the teenager was back involved with a floated ball out to Médard, who then fed Huget for the score. Ntamack converted to make it 17-9.
Allan could have responded immediately but pulled a simple penalty opportunity wide.
However Italy got back into the game on 55 minutes when Tebaldi got over. It started from a crashing run by Parisse, brushing off Ntamack on the way, and the Azzurri were able to go through the phases before eventually the scrum-half sold a dummy and dotted down. Allan’s conversion was again off-target.
Leading by just three, France were starting to feel the heat, but a loose ball kicked through by Médard got them back into the Italian 22. After Camille Chat, an early replacement for the injured Guilhem Guirado, was stopped short on one bulldozing charge, Ntamack took the initiative and slotted a drop goal to make it 20-14.
Italy were still very much within striking distance, and almost had a second try when Tebaldi darted off the back of another ruck, but knocked on under pressure from Lambey as he reached for the line.
Still, Italy kept coming and after a long period of pressure got a man advantage when Chat was sin-binned for collapsing a maul.
The try seemed inevitable, and it should have come six minutes from time when Zanon had a second chance to get a debut try. Put into space, his eyes lit up as he streaked for the line, but Penaud got across to force the knock-on.
He then followed it up with a fine finish after great work by Ntamack to reclaim an up-and-under from Baptiste Serin before putting him away.
France looked under huge pressure in the final ten minutes and the pressure seemed like it would finally tell when Zanon was put in space. Penaud had other ideas though, showing that he is more than just a big threat with ball in hand, denying the centre as he punched the ball clear.
Romain Ntamack was playing in his fifth game at this level, and his last as a teenager. Despite a difficult afternoon for Les Bleus, he was measured throughout, took his drop goal well and set up Yoann Huget’s try. And just as France needed someone to help them see out the win, it was he who was quickest onto a high ball and then spotted Penaud outside him to put him away.