A Gabin Villière hat-trick helped France see off a stubborn Italy side 37-10 to get their Guinness Six Nations 2022 campaign off to a winning start in Paris.
Italy started strongly and took the lead thanks to a try from 19-year-old Tommaso Menoncello, the youngest scorer in the Championship 55 years.
But Anthony Jelonch and Villière hit back for Les Bleus, who went into the interval with an 18-10 advantage.
Villière’s second stretched the French lead before Damian Penaud notched the bonus point and the Toulon winger completed his treble with the final play of the game.
France kicked off the game with 13 of the 15 players who beat the All Blacks 40-25 at the Stade de France back in November, Julien Marchand and Dylan Cretin the only changes.
Italy, meanwhile, handed debuts to Menoncello and Toa Halafihi in their first Championship game under Kieran Crowley.
And while they were beaten in the end, this was a much-improved display compared to last season’s showings.
Les Bleus, meanwhile, took their time to get going, but got the five points they were after. Fabien Galthié, who was absent from the Stade de France after testing positive for Covid, will know that an improvement will be needed against Ireland here next Saturday.
ITALY START STRONG
France hit the front after four minutes thanks to a Melvyn Jaminet penalty when Italy strayed offside, and soon after had their first real chance when Penaud carried powerfully at first receiver behind a scrum leading to a grubber kick from Gaël Fickou that Villière could not quite collect.
Italy were very much in it though, one opportunity going begging when Stephen Varney knocked on about ten metres out after some powerful carries from the forwards.
The conditions were make life tough under the high ball, and when Jaminet spilled one up-and-under, the Azzurri pounced. Federico Ruzza carried deep into the 22, and a couple of phases later, Paolo Garbisi’s perfect cross-kick was collected by Menoncello who kept his toes in play before dotting down. Garbisi converted from the touchline to make it 7-3.
France hit back soon after, a messy lineout recovered by Varney scrambling backwards. He tried to pop the ball up, but Jelonch was able to read it easily and canter over. Jaminet’s conversion bounced off the post and away.
An offside from Cameron Woki allowed Garbisi to put Italy back in front, but it was quickly cancelled out by Jaminet to make it 11-10.
And it was France who finished the half with a flourish, deciding against an easy shot at goal to kick to the corner. The rolling maul was stopped, but when the ball was spread, stunning hands from Romain Ntamack and Penaud allowing Jaminet to put Villière into the corner. Jaminet converted from the touchline to make it 18-10.
The momentum was with France and they almost had a third try at the start of the second half, Danty put into space by Dupont and getting to within inches of the line. Julien Marchand then tried to pick and go but was deemed to be part of the ruck and the try was chalked off.
They did not have to wait long though, Villière showing his opportunistic streak as he was on hand to take Grégory Alldritt’s offload before dummying to kick to skip past the last man and get his second. Jaminet’s conversion from the touchline was pulled just to the left as France led 23-10.
Italy’s defence was resolute as France went in search of the bonus point, but it eventually came with 12 minutes remaining and it was a stunner. Yoram Moefana accelerated before putting Penaud into space. He then exchanged passes with Antoine Dupont to beat the remaining defence with the winger going over on the right. Jaminet added the extras from out wide.
There was still time for France to get a fifth try, and it came with the clock in the red, good hands from Moefana and Penaud putting Villière into the corner. Ntamack, taking over kicking duties, drilled the touchline conversion to cap off a convincing victory.
VILLIÈRE ENJOYS ITALIAN REUNION
It was in 2020 that Gabin Villière made his France debut against the Azzurri in the Autumn Nations Cup. On that occasion, he opened his Test account with a brilliant score off a lineout. On this occasion, he became the first Frenchman to score a Championship hat-trick since Vincent Clerc 14 years ago. Renowned for his all-round game, rather than his finishing, it was a reminder that Villière is also a poacher when he needs to be.