Italy and France played out a classic in Rome, and while the Grand Slam champions came away with five points, the Azzurri may be more positive heading into round two of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
In the end, it was Matthieu Jalibert’s late try that made the difference, edging France to a 29-24 success as they withstood the final Italian surge.
But a week out from a trip to Dublin, Les Bleus know they will have to be much improved to take down the world’s number one team. Conversely, Italy will head to Twickenham knowing that they have just pushed last year’s champions to breaking point and are starting to fulfil their potential.
French breakdown work under the microscope
France defence coach Shaun Edwards summed it up after the game, he had never seen his defence as indisciplined as France were for 80 minutes in Rome.
Les Bleus conceded 18 penalties in total, including seven alone at ruck-time, as they allowed Italy easy territory over and over.
A year ago, their work at the breakdown was one of their greatest strengths, players like Julien Marchand, Jonathan Danty and Gabin Villière regularly winning turnovers the second a player was isolated.
In Rome, they could not find the answer though, and Edwards admitted as much.
He said: “I have been in the game for 20 years and that’s the most penalties I’ve had against us in defence. We will have to go through it in detail with the referees. I’ve not had a defence penalised so much.”
Next up is a trip to Ireland to face the team in world rugby who are most comfortable monopolising the ball.
France will be hoping their breakdown struggles, on a weekend with a clear desire from officials to be hot on jackals, were merely an aberration rather than a trend.
Major questions to answer but Dumortier slots straight in
Antoine Dupont and his team were not particularly happy with their performance in Rome, even if they did come away with five points.
One positive however, will have been the display of debutant Ethan Dumortier. The Lyon man is the top try-scorer in the Top 14 and he crossed the whitewash on his international debut when collecting Romain Ntamack’s exquisite cross-kick.
It was more than just that though, he had a couple of other dangerous runs, showing the quick feet of his days playing sevens and looking right at home on the big stage.
With Gabin Villière out for the entire Championship, Dumortier could get a run of games and he looked ready for the opportunity.
Italy resurgence is for real
In 2022, Italy ended their long wait for a win in the Guinness Six Nations, they romped past Pacific Nations Cup winners Samoa and beat Australia for the first time ever.
The question was whether they could back that up, and they took some time getting up to speed as France raced into a 19-6 lead, punishing every mistake.
But they did not buckle, Ange Capuozzo got a delightful score and they took advantage of the constant French infringing to get right back into it.
They did so thanks to a solid set-piece, some good phase play and slick work in the backs.
Consider that it was also done without their star fly-half Paolo Garbisi, and this Italy team showed that they are going to be tough to beat throughout this campaign.
Capuozzo shines again but give forwards their due
With another brilliant finish, Capuozzo will get lots of the headlines, and deservedly so, but Italy’s pack really stood up and played a big part in coming so close.
Lorenzo Cannone is still pretty much a rookie at this level, but already looks like the long-term answer at No.8. He carried powerfully, was a threat at the breakdown and got through work in defence as well.
Fellow back-rowers Sebastian Negri and Michele Lamaro were even more industrious, with 15 and 12 carries respectively. Federico Ruzza was also fantastic, with soft hands that were important in Italy’s all-court attack, while the front row held up well in the set-piece.
Capuozzo and young teammate Tommaso Menoncello are really exciting backs but without the strength of the Italian pack, they would not have the ball needed to threaten the best defences.
Italy will head to Twickenham with belief
They may have had to settle for a losing bonus point but the way Italy pushed France all the way will have done wonders for their confidence.
England are the only team in the Guinness Six Nations that they are yet to beat but their Under-20s broke their own duck in the fixture a year ago.
We saw on Saturday that Scotland had no fear whatsoever at Twickenham, and this Italian side is much more comfortable against the world’s best sides than in previous years.
They will of course be heavy underdogs, but they showed enough in Rome to have every reason to believe they can trouble Steve Borthwick’s side next Sunday.