France v Italy
Perhaps it is unfair to expect to see radical improvements in France’s play given the limited time Guy Noves has had in charge but there was a sense after Saturday’s game that this French team was lucky to leave the Stade de France with a victory.
The former Toulouse coach seems to signal his intent to change the French style in his team selection. Out went the powerful Mathieu Bastareaud and in came a flying sevens winger; the solid Scott Spedding was jettisoned for the fleet of foot of Maxime Medard.
Noves seemed to be making the statement that a return to traditional French rugby playing values was the order of the day and that the prosaic pragmatism of the Saint Andre era was to be replaced by a more lively, “French” approach to rugby.
On the pitch the French certainly looked like the French of old for some time with attacks from deep, a fast off-loading game combining backs and forwards and a spirit that seemed to have been missing from the French team for some years.
Italy though have a spirit of their own and under their French coach, Jacques Brunel, they attempted to outplay France at their own game. Indeed, if it wasn’t for a lack of composure as their neared the French line Italy could quite easily have scored a couple of first half tries and taken the game by the scruff of the neck. It is testament to both teams’ positive intent that they each made 7 clean line breaks in the game and contributed a healthy 23 offloads between them. It was exciting rugby, littered with mistakes.
A discussion for another day is whether Brunel has taken too far away from their core strengths (the forwards) in the move to a faster, more expansive game plan? Italy has traditionally struggled to produce backs with vision and creativity and although the likes of Campagnaro and Garcia enjoyed some success against the French midfield there is a strong argument to say a more structured approach would make Italy harder to beat.
As the game evolved Sergio Parisse once again came to the fore and showed why he is one the great number 8s of all time. There were times when he seemed to single handed drag the Italians in to the game with his power and spirit.
It was a shame that the game was ultimately decided by a fairly innocuous penalty when so much of the play before it had been positive. This is still an area of frustration for the rugby fan. In the game today a large number of offences are either ignored or not considered material by the referee but he will then single out one offence to be penalised. Which offence is penalised is too arbitrary to be a satisfactory way to end a professional game like this.
France still look a long way short of being competitive against the top teams in the championship and this could conceivably be their only victory this year. A vibrant Italy showed enough attacking intent to cause other teams problems, but once again it will be the play off against Scotland that will decide their final position in the table.
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