Six Nations: Five takeaways from Italy v France as Ange Capuozzo and Azzurri go agonisingly close against holders
Following a 29-24 victory for France over Italy in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the game at the Stadio Olimpico.
The top line
An absolute thriller in Rome saw Italy push France all the way as the holders of the Six Nations failed to impress in their first outing in defence of the trophy.
An unusually ill-disciplined display from Les Bleus saw them haemorrhage 19 penalties, mostly around the breakdown, and led to them receiving their first yellow card in 14 matches.
However, to suggest for one moment that this was the cause of Italy‘s fortune is denuding a brilliant effort of running rugby from the Azzurri. Ange Capuozzo will get the headlines for his astonishing finish for his try, but elsewhere Juan Ignacio Brex and Luca Morisi in the centres had a field day of phase running round the corner, inspired by a mighty performance from the Italian back-row and in particular, an outstanding shift from loosehead prop Danilo Fischetti, who at times played like an openside flanker.
As the game closed out, perhaps Italy will be disappointed to how they responded to a couple of gilt edged opportunities as Tommaso Allan failed to make the required metres with two penalty touch kicks, and with France powerful in lineout defence. However, based upon their spirit and skill for this showing, Italy will travel to Twickenham for next Sunday’s match with their best chance of a win against England, hoping to finally record that elusive first Six Nations victory against Steve Borthwick’s side.
As with their match against Japan in November, France had to rely upon bench impact and a moment of great finishing from Matthieu Jalibert to get them home. Romain Taofifenua, Sekou Macalou and Jalibert all had moments of difference – Jalibert’s try was as a result of a wonderful pass and take from Taofifenua and Macalou made one vital penalty winning turnover effort in the 72nd minute with Italy in full flight down the left hand side.
The players they replaced – Gregory Alldritt, Paul Willemse and Romain Ntamack, are all mainstays of the French starting line-up but all three looked way below their best – there’s little chance of Alldritt and Willemse losing their places but the debate in France over the fly-half berth is sure to reignite with the country divided over who of Jalibert or Ntamack is the better game controller.
Conversely, when Italy took off the outstanding Seb Negri and Lorenzo Cannone they never quite had the punch and continuity that they’d enjoyed with those two fantastic back-rowers on the pitch. It was a clear case of French depth giving them an edge, but make no mistake – that edge was miniscule and could have cut either way.
Capuozzo is 71kgs wet through and is a tiny 1.77m – a man from Lilliput against the giant Gullivers of Test rugby. However, his skill, pace, timing and sheer impudence are enormous and once again he thrilled all that watched with his entertaining talents at full-back.
Little guys learn how to avoid the big bullies – his standing up of the world class number eight Alldritt on the left wing and outstanding finish to score in 31st minute saw all of his rugby talent in one move. He waited to enter the line down the blindside at the very last moment – to Alldritt’s credit he read this wonderfully, left the breakdown to defend – but as his 115kgs changed direction, so Capuozzo simply stopped, halting Alldritt, stepped and went again, leaving the big La Rochellian grasping at thin air.
But Capuozzo is not just limited to just what he does personally – having a killer weapon like him in the backline brings confidence and he has an aura about him – it inspires a style of play and is cutting the shackles off the traditional approach of Italian rugby.
As his career matures, we might just find that the Toulouse flyer becomes just as important to this iteration of Italian rugby as Sergio Parisse did before him – the heartbeat of the team but more importantly, the man they build their culture around.
🇮🇹 What a fine finish that was from Ange Capuozzo! #ITAvFRA pic.twitter.com/jLijHPMr7b
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) February 5, 2023
The big performances
For Italy, Brex, Fischetti, both Cannones, Michele Lamaro and Negri played like men possessed for their time on the pitch. Brex and his centre partner Morisi both carried like demons, sharing 28 clattering runs for some 190 metres between them. Negri hammered the French line 15 times, creating metres on each occasion and becoming the key gainline carrier for Italy. Men like this are essential when you have the firepower of Tommaso Menoncello and Capuozzo outside them and organisational work of Brex in particular was outstanding, despite the defeat.
France will thank their midfield skipper Gael Fickou for a calm shift under pressure – 14 carries and 15 tackles with 100% completion showed his contribution in a difficult Test. Thibaut Flament was excellent in all aspects as he filled in for the missing Cameron Woki. His charge down of Stephen Varney’s clearance showed a degree of preplanning, but he made two crucial lineout steals and some impressive work in the loose.
France will be relieved to get this one out of the way and take a bonus-point win with them, but at the back of their minds there will be great concern over the number of recent matches where they’ve had to play their get out of jail card. Ireland, Wales, Australia, and South Africa last year all saw wins but ones that might have gone either way right down until the end.
Some might argue that closing out tight matches is an artform in itself, but given the way France start matches (in all four listed above they scored a try within nine minutes) there’s something clearly not firing somewhere in their team. At scrum time, Cyril Baille has exposed a soft underbelly on a couple of occasions and a couple of times Simone Ferrari dismantled his technique.
The absence of a big runner in midfield was palpable on Sunday and France don’t have the gainline power they had a year or so ago. Allied to this, some of their biggest players – Willemse and Charles Ollivon are coming back in after horrendous injuries and it just seems that they’re not firing as smoothly as others, notably New Zealand and Ireland.
For Italy it’s simple – be completer/finishers – stay in the match for the whole 80 but above all, stay calm when delivering that killer blow. This was so near yet so far, a game they’ll look on with more frustration than pride – exactly the right approach because this class of 2023 is a far better side than to dine out on moral victories or close defeats.
READ MORE: Six Nations: France hang on for opening round victory over Italy in Rome