Only eighty minutes and fifteen Englishmen separate France from a Grand Slam, after a thumping 46-20 win over Italy in Paris.
Only eighty minutes and fifteen Englishmen separate France from a Grand Slam, after a thumping 46-20 win over Italy in Paris on Sunday.
Only a fool would bet against them now. Their next opponents have managed only five tries this tournament, fewer than France managed all game against Italy. They've shown the ability to win all different types of game: the bullying power to beat Ireland, the patience to beat Scotland, the clinicality to beat Wales. When it came to Italy, they displayed all the flair that has been bottled up this tournament, running Italy ragged at every opportunity. It's a complete team which can, on its day, cover all bases.
It was no flawless performance. The ball was turned over in open play nine times and they conceded more late soft tries, stats which could ruin a perfectly good Six Nations campaign against an English team as stubborn as it is limited.
But it was enough of a display to suggest that the French team has spent this tounament going through the gears and is about to hit top speed at the right moment. We can leave further tributes – the youth in so many key positions, the accuracy of the handling, the apparent unity among the players and the energy they produce – until next week and if/when they have actually taken this campaign through to its conclusion, but there's little doubt in anybody's mind that the Grand Slam is now France's to lose.
Italy will head to Cardiff next week with their heads hanging low. They tried gamely, but were thoroughly outclassed in pretty much all areas, including their much-vaunted scrum. It's a team that has grown together and is laoded with experience but either needs a new leader or some new talent.
The entry of two teams to the Magners League could well be the missing link to the process, as long as the teams themselves ensure they keep it Italian and don't dilute their indigenous talents. Players like the unfortunate Tito Tebaldi, who was sacrificed after just half an hour – could be much better than they are now with a couple of years of regular first-class rugby behind them. Nick Mallett must have spent the week jumping for joy this week, even if Sunday's display was a bit of a party-pooper.
Centre David Marty, preferred in the starting line-up to Mathieu Bastareaud, justified Lievremont's selection by scoring two tries in eight minutes, both while Italy were down to 14 men with Gonzalo Garcia in the sin bin.
Winger Marc Andreu and flanker Alexandre Lapandry both scored their first tries for their country, the former on his home debut.
And, with other tries coming from Imanol Harinordoquy and Yannick Jauzion, and Morgan Parra kicking seven goals from nine attempts, the French were heading for a landslide victory as they led 46-6 after 65 minutes.
But the Azzurri produced a spirited rally which brought them late tries through replacements Carlo Del Fava and Pablo Canavosio and Mirco Bergamasco added both conversions to two early penalties to give the score a touch of respectability which looked unthinkable for an hour when France were simply irresistible.
The French pack quickly asserted their authority to give half-backs Francois Trinh-Duc and Parra, making a seventh consecutive start together, the platform to unleash their dangerous three-quarters, while Clement Poitrenaud added an extra cutting edge from full-back.
It was Parra who created the game's first try, jinking his way through the Italian defence to get Harinordoquy over and he kicked the first of two penalties to make it 10-0.
The Italians' cause was made all the more difficult on 17 minutes when centre Garcia, fresh from a spell in blood bin, was sent to the sin bin for an obstruction of Andreu, who has been released on an exciting touchline dash by Poitrenaud.
France immediately made the extra man count as Marty coasted through a gap in the stretched Azzurri defence to score his side's second try, with Parra extending their lead to 17-0 with the conversion.
Poitrenaud demonstrated his attacking flair again on 27 minutes to help get Harinordoquy into space and he sent Marty over for his second try while the Italians were still down to 14 men.
The visitors could do little right and when they managed to breach the French defence second rower Marco Bortolami was recalled for a forward pass by Garcia.
Coach Nick Mallett responded to the mounting crisis by withdrawing scrum-half Tito Tebaldi in favour of the more experienced Canavosio and Italy finally got points on the board just before the break when Mirco Bergamasco landed a 40-metre penalty.
Parra lost his 100 per cent record when he failed to convert Marty's second try but he made amends with a long-range penalty two minutes into the second half.
Marty then thought he was on for a hat-trick after racing onto Parra's kick but he was ruled offside and instead Bergamasco pulled three points back with the resulting penalty.
That briefly encouraged the visitors and a neat pass out of the tackle by number eight Alessandro Zanni released Canavosio into space but Julien Bonnaire got back to preserve the French tryline.
If the Azzurri lacked a cutting edge, France were razor sharp and they quickly added to their try tally.
Andreu came in off his wing to produce a scything run that took him all the way to the line, and then produced the break that got Jauzion romping over.
Parra was off target for the second time with a long-range penalty but he was back in the groove on 65 minutes to convert a try by Lapandry, who produced a strong finish to a break from fellow replacement Julien Malzieu.
The Italians looked a dispirited lot as they gathered under the posts waiting for the conversion but they produced a spirited two-try rally to take some of the gloss off the French triumph.
Man of the match: A close call between Clement Poitrenaud – who got the match organisers' call – and Marc Andreu. We'll go for the winger on his full debut, for a work-rate far beyond that of a normal winger's and for proving, at 5'5 inches tall, that rugby can still be a game for all sizes.
Moment of the match: France's third try. Length of the field French classy brilliance.
Villian of the match: Far too much running for players to waste their time on villainy.
Tries: Harinordoquy, Marty 2, Andreu, Jauzion, Lapandry
Cons: Parra 5
Pens: Parra 2
Tries: Del Fava, Canavosio
Cons: Mirco Bergamasco 2
Pens: Mirco Bergamasco 2
France: 15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Marc Andreu, 13 David Marty, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 5 Julien Pierre, 4 Lionel Nallet, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Jean-