France victory comes at a cost as Huget limps out of the tournament
A convincing victory for France, but it came in a scrappy and unsatisfying encounter, with the result never in doubt and with both sides losing players to tournament-ending injuries — Andrea Masi for Italy and Yoann Huget for France.
It was always going to be a difficult task to live up to the earlier events in Brighton, even if there was a raucous atmosphere from a crowd that appeared to fill more of the ground than the figure of 76,232 that was announced. It looked full. “It was the first time I have heard a French Twickenham,” said France head coach Philippe SaintAndre. And, boy, for long periods did both sides make it difficult especially in the first half, with their mountain of errors and their indiscipline that led to far too much blowing of the whistle.
The outstanding players were the usual suspects. For France, No 8 Louis Picamoles was absolutely mountainous, a huge presence on the carry, just as his skipper Thierry Dusautoir was huge in the tackle. How these two must despair sometimes when their hard work is wasted with profligacy in the backline. Out there France were missing Wesley Fofana but Mathieu Bastareaud was still running hard, as he does. But too often mistakes were made. “We need more patience,” said Saint-Andre. “Maybe we tried some passes that were impossible.”
For Italy, captain and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was superb, carrying relentlessly and always at the heart of their work. But he lacked support and his team’s scrummage was wobbly, where they were penalised mercilessly. And most of his team lacked discipline.
Frederic Michalak, as unpredictable as ever, had hit a post with his first pen- alty but made no mistake minutes later to give France a 3-0 lead. They thought it was 8-0 soon afterwards when winger Noa Nakaitaci appeared to score in the corner after Picamoles’ pass had come off the back of Leonardo Sarto.
Nakaitaci should really have scored and it would have been just reward for the build-up work of Alexandre Dumoulin, but it made a real hash of it.
Not that the TMO realised upon his first viewing in a rather farcical moment. He was only looking to see if the pass from Picamoles had gone forward. Not that it would have taken much just to glance a frame forward and see the truth. It was not until referee Craig Joubert saw the replay on the big screen that he called for another review and eventually the correct decision was made.
Much has been made of the use of the TMO, and it was embarrassing that Shaun Veldsman, another South African having a bad day, did not spot the spill first time, but at least we got there in the end. You do not want millions watching on television knowing it was not a try and it still standing. The TMO must stay. As is often the case with technology in sport, it is often those using it that are the problem, not the technology itself.
As it was, Joubert came back for a French penalty in front of the posts, with Italy being pinged consistently at this point, and Michalak slotted it to make it 6-0. Tomasso Allan should have made it 6-3 with his first penalty attempt, but he shanked it badly. And then Michalak hit the post again with another penalty. It was hardly a kicking masterclass. Little wonder we then had the first Mexican wave of the evening. That is never a good sign.
More serious was the injury suffered by the excellent Masi. He was taken off with a snapped Achilles tendon. “It is the third centre we have lost,” lamented coach Jacques Brunel. “We don’t have a lot of resources left in that position.” France began to thread some phases together, with Picamoles and Bastareaud prominent, and were rewarded with another penalty that Michalak kicked. It was 9-0.
At last, though, Italy got themselves moving on the scoreboard when Allan kicked a difficult penalty after a scrummage infringement.
The frustrating nature of events continued, though, as this time France won a penalty at the scrummage just inside their own half and up stepped full-back Scott Spedding, their specialist long range place-kicker. It is always so useful to have such a player in your side — it was how Leigh Halfpenny began his kicking career for Wales — and Spedding duly landed a monstrous kick.
Soon afterwards there was a much easier opportunity and the duties reverted to Michalak, who kicked it to make it 15-3 at half time.
The second half had only just begun when Michalak added another penalty after Martin Castrogiovanni was caught offside. Then, at last, came a try. It was pretty good too. Nakaitaci escaped down the left and found Guilhem Guirado inside. The hooker so very nearly scored under the posts, but the ball was recycled and went right and back left before Michalak put a lovely grubber through for tighthead prop Rabah Slimani to score. Michalak converted and it was 25-3. That was game over, and the game’s best moment gone.
Italy did respond with a powerful driving line-out and when Edoardo Gori took a quick tap he so nearly scored. France turned the ball over and promptly fumbled it so that Gori nearly scored again. But he had not got a hand on the ball.
Not that Italy were done. The pressure continued and eventually after eight phases space was found for winger Giovanbattista Venditti on the right to score. Allan converted.
French winger Huget then suffered a nasty-looking knee injury. “The news is not very reassuring,” said Saint-Andre. “It looks like a cruciate ligament injury. He will have a scan and we will make a decision quickly. He’s a very important player and a lot of players from Toulouse are in this team and afterwards for four or five minutes we were quite shaky.” And Italy were throwing everything at France as Allan kicked a penalty to the corner. But the drive was repelled and France won a penalty.
France, too, were kicking for the corner but they were equally sloppy, with the inevitable raft of replacements having arrived and any cohesion that had clicked in the early part of the second half disappearing.
That was until after another driving line-out from which replacement prop Nicolas Mas managed to put the ball against the bottom of the post to score France’s second try. Michalak converted. It was 32-10. And that was how it remained.
Unstoppable: France prop Rabah Slimani thunders through for a try against Italy