Jules Plisson’s late penalty was enough for France to hold off Italy 23-21 in a gripping Six Nations opener at the Stade de France.
Virimi Vakatawa crossed on his debut as France outscored their visitors three tries to two, but Sergio Parisse's late drop-goal attempt nearly snatched victory for the Azzurri, only for his effort to miss.
As tactical performances go this was one of Italy’s finest for years and they surpassed all pre-tournament expectations, arguably deserving more for their efforts in an entertaining contest.
There is so much hope around France’s new caps, four of which started in Paris with Yacouba Camara an early replacement for Louis Picamoles. That experience felt like a burden until their fly-half Plisson, just 24 himself, landed the crucial penalty with only minutes remaining.
Written off in a hurry before the tournament, this was a fine response from Italy. Competitive as ever in the set-piece, whenever their passes stuck they appeared a real threat, exposing France’s flawed defence. It almost goes without saying that Parisse was excellent such is his class, but this was one of his finest games for some time.
Leonardo Sarto came so close to a moment of brilliance chasing down Edoardo Gori's box kick but their bright start was rewarded through a drop-goal from Carlo Canna.
Vakatawa's try shortly followed, despite his foot coming dangerously close to the touchline, but it came at a cost as Picamoles trudged off the field helped by the French medical staff.
A missed penalty and conversion from Sébastien Bezy prevented France's lead from being healthier after the opening quarter.
By persistenly testing Vakatawa's positioning with kicks over his head Italy eventually struck back, forcing Maxime Médard to turn and find the safety of touch with his boot. Attacking from the resulting five-metre lineout, Parisse was found at the bottom of the pile after Italy's maul rumbled over the line to score.
The quick-thinking of Gaël Fickou, taking a tap penalty after Parisse's deliberate knock-on, helped to spin the ball through the hands allowing Damien Chouly to finish in the corner. Bézy missed his third kick of the contest from out wide.
Canna had the chance to put Italy ahead just before the break, but his penalty drifted wide yet again to leave Italy trailing 10-8 at the interval despite banging on the door late on through Michele Campagnaro who was stopped just short.
Italy’s young fly-half found his range with a first penalty after the break to put the Azzurri ahead, but what happened next stunned the Stade de France.
With so much space on offer Italy profited by getting their runners into gaps at speed, Parisse’s carry putting him on the verge of a second score were it not for Vakatawa’s try-saving tackle. After Italy recycled Canna was there to touch down, converting to make it 18-10.
Now under pressure France looked short of both leadership and also direction in their attack, trying to spread the ball as often as they could with little success. Plisson’s chip and chase was a rare exception, even if the attack came to nothing.
France at last clicked with a sweeping score, started by Vakatawa’s thunderous carry as he dragged tacklers into the 22. Wide the French went as Danty released Hugo Bonneval to score right in the corner. Plisson’s conversion made it a one-point game.
The switch in kickers paid off with a Plisson penalty with 11 minutes to go, putting France back ahead at 20-18, only for replacement number ten Kelly Haimona to swing the lead back Italy’s way with six minutes left.
Parisse, shaking his head after being penalised for playing the ball after being tackled, then watched his Stade Français team-mate Plisson hammer over a monster penalty to make it 23-21.
Italy did their best to force a penalty out of JP Doyle through the scrum, and then for a drop goal – bizarrely taken by all people by Parisse in familiar territory. The number eight's effort desperately missed, France clinging on.
Man of the Match: Contenders from both sides, with Canna excellent for Italy, but Jules Plisson's late kicks were absolutely vital when France needed direction.
Moment of the Match: Parisse, penalised for trying to carry on after being tackled, and Plisson's huge penalty thereafter to secure the win.
Villain of the Match: Nothing nasty to report.
Tries: Vakatawa, Chouly, Bonneval
Tries: Parisse, Canna
Pens: Canna, Haimona
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Hugo Bonneval, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastien Bezy, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Jefferson Poirot, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yacouba Camara, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Maxime Mermoz
Italy: 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Marco Fuser, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Andries van Schalkwyk, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)