French victory lacks any conviction

Hugo Bonneval of France scores his team's third try. Picture: Getty
Hugo Bonneval of France scores his team's third try. Picture: Getty
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New head coach Guy Noves was spared an early embarrassment as France came from eight points behind to beat Italy 23-21 in the opening match of the Six Nations.

France had won all eight previous Six Nations matches between the teams at the Stade de France, but for long periods a ninth was in doubt, despite a try-scoring debut from Fiji-born wing Virimi Vakatawa.

Jules Plisson’s long-range penalty ultimately broke Italian hearts and denied Jacques Brunel’s side a famous victory, with Italy captain Sergio Parisse missing a last-gasp drop-goal attempt.

France’s tries came from Vakatawa, Damien Chouly and Hugo Bonneval, with Italy’s responses from Parisse, winning his 115th cap, and Carlo Canna.

France rode their luck in the first half and might have gone to the dressing room behind, rather than 10-8 ahead. Italy centre Michele Campagnaro was tackled barely a yard from the line in the 40th minute following a scything run.

A warning shot from Italy came in the eighth minute when Canna slotted a 30-metre drop goal, but the stand-off later missed a pair of 
seemingly routine kicks.

On his debut for France, Toulouse scrum-half Sebastien Bezy squandered three first-half shots at goal. He was later relieved, and Plisson took the glory.

France’s wild-card winger Vakatawa made his first big impact in the 15th minute.

Promoted from the Sevens ranks by an impressed Noves, without a Top 14 club and lacking 15-a-side experience, Vakatawa looked right at home.

He darted over in the left corner for an eye-catching try after a spell of French pressure. Fed by Maxime Medard, he side-stepped Leonardo Sato to dot down.

Parisse hit back when he led a driving maul over the French line and grounded the ball, but Canna fluffed the conversion.

France regained the lead with Gael Fickou orchestrating a tap-penalty move that saw Chouly surging over in the right corner.

There was no letting up from Italy after the break, Canna finally bisecting the posts after an infringement by Eddy Ben Arous to put the buoyant visitors in front, and they led 18-10 after a converted try two 
minutes later.

Parisse was inches away, but could not get the ball down. Italy kept possession and Canna steamed in before converting his own score.

A French lifeline arrived when Bonneval buried in at the left corner. Plisson converted. Plisson booted a 69th-minute penalty to inch France ahead at 20-18, but Kelly Haimona responded five minutes later after Uini Atonio was penalised.

It was then Parisse’s turn to be penalised, and from 50 metres Plisson nailed the match-winning kick.