The first game of the 2021 Six Nations did not disappoint in terms of entertainment, with both Italy and France having moments of domination. However, it was France who had the quality to convert their chances, and put on a performance that will strike fear into the other teams expected to be competing for the title.
If we first look at France, one of the key parts to their team over the last year has been their increased defensive strength, which has come from former Wales coach Shaun Edwards, who was appointed in 2020 to oversee that area of the team, and it was tested against an Italian side looking to put pressure on them in the first half. France actually started the game looking a little nervous, making some really poor errors, and that gave Italy control of the game for part of the first half, which was perhaps surprising, given what we know about France, and how strong they were last year.
However, this didn’t last too long, and, once France had settled into the game, they never looked back. If we analyse their third try in particular, it came from a mistake in possession by Italy, but the way that France counter-attacked showed the questions they will ask of opposing defences in this tournament. They were alive to the situation, anticipating what would happen, and winger Gabriel Villiere and scrum-half Antoine Dupont worked together well to set up centre Arthur Vincent, who we know can cause problems for defenders, always looking to attack from deep positions.
In the second half, we expected France to start well, and they did. The energy that they showed was there, and they found plenty of spaces, cutting Italy apart, with the wings proving to be a really good area for them. Villiere and fellow winger Teddy Thomas were a serious threat, carrying pace, precision and intent, and every time the ball got to them, you always thought something would happen. They also combined well with the rest of the team, as evidenced by their fourth try, securing the bonus point, which came when Villiere sent full-back Brice Dulin through to score, too easily from Italy’s point of view.
France will be delighted with the level of performance they put on, but will not get carried away. They will know that, in all honesty, this was their easiest game of the tournament, so a win and a bonus point is welcome, as not getting enough of them is what let them down in the title race last year.
Turning our attention to Italy, they actually surprised us in the first half, playing some really quick rugby, and created plenty of space in the French defence. When they played quick passes, rather than waiting for the ball to hit the ground, you always thought they could get through the defensive line. However, they were also patient, happy to go through the phases and gently force France backwards with each drive, and that is a good positive for them to build on. As mentioned, France looked nervous when Italy were playing with this speed, and the home side were definitely on top for the first 20 minutes or so of the first half.
However, as with any Italy performance, it didn’t last forever. The point where France took control was after their second try, when, just after Italy had forced France back virtually onto their own try line, they conceded two penalties, one after the other. These came from collapsing a scrum, from which France kicked out for a lineout, and then captain and hooker Luca Bigi came in at the side, allowing France to kick further down the field. From that second lineout, Dupont kicked through the defence for experienced centre Gael Fickou to get on the end of, and this was the point where Italy’s confidence collapsed, and they began to play like their old selves again. France’s third try also came when Italy threw the ball away, and Italy at that point couldn’t wait for the half-time whistle to be blown.
In the second half, Italy needed to come out and start the way they had begun the first half, but this was not the case. As mentioned, France cut them to pieces every time they came forward, and these were worrying signs for Italy, looking ahead to the rest of the tournament. If they want to win a game this year, they need to remember how they played in the first half and build on that, because they carried a very real threat in that period of the game.
There were a few positives in the second half for them. They did get one try on the board when Benetton winger Luca Sperandio showed good feet to get beyond the line and score, and France couldn’t get back quick enough to block his run. 19-year-old Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney was also a handful for the French side, constantly finding spaces to move the ball around, and showed a good ability and confidence to direct the rest of his team around the pitch as needed. With the scrum-half position still a little up for grabs in the Italian side, he made a big statement with his performance in this game, and his partnership with fly-half Paolo Garbisi, who had another solid game, is something else that Italy can build on going forward. They just need to be sharper in all aspects of the game, but did show moments of quality at times, which is a good note to end on.
Both sides will be happy with parts of this game, and know that they have areas to work on ahead of next week. France will be happy to have picked up a bonus point, and Italy will have noted the positive moments they had in both halves, knowing they have something to build on going forward.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
An easy pick for this one; Antoine Dupont. He was outstanding all game, until his departure just before the hour mark to keep him fresh for next week. He combined well with the rest of the team, particularly the wingers, and was the driving force in France’s attack and defence. With Romain Ntamack missing from the 10 position this year, Dupont has been talked about a lot, as he will need to step up even more to cover that gap, and he did not disappoint here.
Italy’s tournament doesn’t get any easier, as they travel to Twickenham to face defending champions England on Saturday lunchtime, whereas France are also on the road for the second week in a row, heading to Dublin for the Sunday afternoon game.