France v Italy: Six Nations Round 2

This was the game many thought would be the least interesting game of the weekend, and yet I think it was the best game in terms of quality and mistakes from both teams.

France started really well and forced Italy into making mistakes, and their first try was relatively simple in it’s creation. Les Bleues made a simple grubber pass through the defence, and star wing Teddy Thomas ran onto it and got over the line. Really simple, and not difficult for France to make it happen.

They seemed initially happy to run with the ball and take it into contact, rather than moving it down the line with passes and quick moves. This was because Italy are known for their errors and for giving away penalties on the ground, so perhaps this was for that reason – France knew that they had a chance of racking up penalties won on the ground, which would help them to get points on the board early.

But what France did have, which really threatened Italy, was sheer power in attack. France were able to charge at the Italians, and the away side almost had to let them through because they just couldn’t cope int the first twenty minutes or so. In fact, this is exactly how France’s second try was scored. Captain Charles Ollivon, who has made an outstanding start to his time as the skipper, was able to pick the ball up from a breakdown and dive for the line, and France had a very good lead. It was Ollivon’s third try of the tournament in only the second game.

Looking at Ollivon a little more, I think France are benefiting from having their captain in the forward pack. I know their previous captain was a hooker, Guilhem Guirado, but if you compare France to teams like England and Scotland, then you can see that having your captain playing at any position from 1 to 10 is much better, because they can influence the team’s play. If they are further back, then they can’t get messages across at situations like scrums and breakdowns as well. If you want proof if this, then look at France’s performance against England, and in the early stages of this one, and the power they had. Ollivon is a flanker, whereas England’s captain is a fly-half, granted, but is playing as a centre currently. Scotland’s captain is a full-back. England and Scotland have stuttered at times, whilst France have come out fighting, and are playing some good rugby – better than some were expecting.

Their third try came when Italy were dragged inside and left the space open for Number 8 Gregg Alldritt to go through and put the ball down, and that seemed to be Italy’s defence letting them down again. However, as you will see later, the Italians were playing really well throughout, so it wasn’t all bad for them, but that’s to come.

In the second half, France looked rattled, with Italy having scored a try, conversion and penalty in the first half, and it showed. Their lineouts were going astray and being stolen by Italy, and they just looked incredibly shaky and different to the storming start that they had in the first part of the first half. However, they got their bonus point try when they managed to break through and fly-half Romain Ntamack, who had a good overall game, dummied the defenders superbly to create a gap to run through. It was a good try and a very well executed dummy, and without that, the gap would not have been created, because Italy were defending resolutely at this point.

However, the thing that was noticeable about Les Bleues was that they failed to get any momentum going whatsoever. It seemed to be that they would have a good moment, like scoring a try, then a bad one, like conceding a really sloppy penalty. Then they would have a moment of good play, but then lose a lineout. They were just never able to really get going at all, and that cost them in all honesty, because Italy were gaining momentum at the game went on.

The other thing that cost France possession was a lack of discipline. This was particularly evident when Italy threw the ball away and France kicked it down the field, which was all fine, but then French substitute prop Demba Bamba conceded a penalty for a high tackle whilst France were on this attack. It just meant that every time France got the ball, they lost it again, and it was completely different to the France we saw in the first half and against England last weekend.

They did get a fifth try, through substitute scrum-half Baptiste Serin, who replaced the excellent Antoine Dupont late in the game. It was a moment of individual brilliance from him, because he took a tap-and-go penalty quickly, catching Italy out, and then played a grubber pass through the defence before running onto it and scoring the try. It was a good move and secured a win for France in a match where they had been the second-best side in many parts, so they will be pleased to have come away with the win and the bonus point, and be sitting top of the table after two rounds.

As for Italy, they played brilliantly in this one. Initially, it looked like it would be the same story for them – plenty of heart, but also plenty of errors. Certainly when Italy were in possession, the handling errors were creeping in in abundance. As previously said, France didn’t need to panic, because they knew that they would get the ball back whenever they lost it through a penalty, and could just make an interception whenever one presented itself to them.

But things quickly changed for the better fairly rapidly for the Italians. They deservedly got their first try of the tournament when they sped up their passing, and that created a gap on the wing as France were caught out, and Wasps’ Matteo Minozzi was the player who got the try. He was played through by full-back Jayden Hayward, with Minozzi moving to the wing for this one after playing at full-back against Wales. I think this gave Italy better balance, because with Mattia Bellini on one wing and Minozzi on the other, they have plenty of pace, but also the defensive solidity and kicking ability that Hayward brings as well.

The try gave Italy much more confidence, and it showed in their play. They were much more creative and were switching the play around and France in all honesty had no few answers when Italy had the ball. When half-time came, France had the tries, and had played well, but I thought Italy had played just as well, if not better.

All of that meant that, when the second half started, Italy had something to play for, and that showed. In their lineouts, it was interesting that they took players out of their ranks, and spreading them across the pitch ready for the second and third phases. Only four players remained in the actual lineout. The reason for that is that France’s problems in the second half were in the lineout, and Italy saw that their strengths were in the phases in the middle of the pitch, so wanted more players there to give them more of an advantage. It was clever play from the Italians.

What I noticed as the biggest improvement between last week against Wales and here against France was the offloads. Italy were better in possession, and it helped because they were able to speed up their play and actually didn’t concede too many penalties in possession, and this is what stopped them getting any momentum last week against Wales.

Their second try came after sustained Italian pressure, and eventually substitute hooker Federico Zani managed to squeeze the ball against the base of the posts. It is a strange rule to allow that to be a try when it is not technically on or over the line, but that’s the rule so there you go. However, for Italy, it was another step on the path towards redemption after their poor performance last weekend. This was much more like the Italy we saw last year, with them giving teams things to think about.

They even managed to get a third try, when Mattia Bellini was played through again by another excellent offload from full-back Jayden Hayward, who had now assisted both wingers’ tries. The offloads were the best thing about Italy, so it was fitting that they should get two of their three tries through them.

This was a hugely improved performance from the Italians, and, based on what we have seen from Round 2 of the tournament as a whole, they could give Scotland a huge worry in two weeks time. That will be both an important match for both teams and a very interesting game for spectators.

MAN OF THE MATCH:

There were several good performances from both sides, but I thought that there was one player who contributed a lot to the French win, difficult thought it was. Number 8 Gregg Alldritt scored a try, had the most ball carries in the first half, and was involved in just about everything good about France. He was also in the middle of the pitch, meaning that everything went through him mostly. so he was able to influence things centrally too.

NEXT UP:

After a break next weekend, France will go to the Principality to face Wales on Saturday evening, looking to gain a third win in three games. Italy meanwhile are at home for the first time this season, when they host Scotland at the Stadio Olimpico in the lunchtime game on the same day.

 

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