It was hardly vintage France, but it did not need to be. Eight devastating second-half minutes were enough for Fabien Galthie’s second-string side to overcome their early ponderousness to set up an Autumn Nations Cup final with England next Sunday, and inflict an eighth-straight defeat on a plucky, if limited Italy.
England’s only defeat in 2020 came at the hands of Les Bleus but if lightning is indeed to strike twice, then Galthie will know that his dirt-tracker charges will need to be cleaner and more clinical than they were on Saturday night in Paris.
France’s early ungainliness could perhaps be attributed to the solemn, emotive pre-match atmosphere created by the tribute to former wing Christophe Dominici, who tragically died on Tuesday aged 48.
There must have been the slight feeling, too, among the French starting XV, that they were simply keeping the jersey warm for somebody else. A disagreement – and subsequent agreement – between the French federation and the Top 14 meant that head coach Fabien Galthie was forced into making 13 changes to his starting XV from the side that beat Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend – that was never going to be particularly auspicious for his team’s attacking cadence.
Although the hosts eventually ironed out those attacking kinks and creases, they looked disjointed. Their exceptional flanker, Sekou Macalou, shelled the ball twice under little pressure in the first half. While that was uncharacteristic, it typified France’s early frustration, despite taking the lead through a Matthieu Jalibert penalty.
The Italians, after a period of floundering in international rugby, have made quite the habit of scoring silken tries of late; full-back Matteo Minozzi’s sweeping effort against Scotland two weeks ago will live long in the memory. And so too will Carlo Canna’s score on Saturday. Beefy centre Marco Zanon punched a hole, and from there fly-half Paolo Garbisi displayed some delightful wizardry. He shimmied past one defender, dummied another, before offloading inside to his centre, Canna. After a patient, pugnacious attack, it was no less than the visitors deserved.
If there were any doubts beforehand, France now knew they were in a game, as Italy searched for a first-ever win at the Stade de France, and the first over Les Bleus since 2013. But Galthie would have been pleased with his understudies’ response. No 8 Anthony Jelonch, who fought tirelessly all evening, won a vital holding-on penalty as Italy had thoughts of extending their lead. One minute later, however, the visitors would surrender their advantage.
Full-back Brice Dulin’s awkward grubber kick forced winger Jacopo Trulla to carry over his own line and touch down. From the subsequent scrum – which France held beautifully firm, providing a flawless attacking platform – centre Jonathan Danty barged through Garbisi and Trulla, his piston leg-drive taking him over and restoring France’s lead.
That was the catalyst for France’s scoreboard acceleration, but Italy’s capitulation was engendered in part by Trulla’s sin-binning for a deliberate knock-on, referee Nigel Owens brandishing the yellow card in his 100th Test. After that infringement, France stretched their legs to devastating effect.
Gabin Villiere scored a spectacular solo try on his debut, peeling intrepidly round the back of a lineout after a steal by lock Killian Geraci, the Toulon wing’s explosive pace taking him away from the startled Italian defence.
When scrum-half Baptiste Serin – of all people – dotted down from the back of a slick French driving maul, the game was all-but done. France broke clear immediately from the ensuing restart, Dulin shrugging off a couple of tacklers before setting Teddy Thomas free. The wing was never going to be caught, and neither were France. Macalou’s try at the death following typical French offloading ensured a confident finish before their final.
France have only beaten England twice in the same calendar year once in history, back in 2007. Dominici played in the second of those two victories; if his international descendants could mirror his feat in 2020, then that would be some tribute.
France starting XV: B Dulin, T Thomas, J-P Barraque, J Danty, G Villiere, M Jalibert, B Serin (c), R Neti, P Mauvaka, D Aldegheri, K Geraci, B Peseti, C Woki, S Macalou, A Jelonch. Replacements: T Baubigny, H Kolingar, U Atonio, C Cazeaux, S Rebbadj, B Couilloud, L Carbonel, Y Moefana.
Italy starting XV: M Minozzi, J Trulla, M Zanon, C Canna, L Sperandio; P Garbisi, M Violi; D Fischetti, L Bigi (c), G Zilocchi, M Lazzaroni, N Cannone, M Mbanda, J Meyer, B Steyn. Replacements: L Ghiraldini, S Ferrari, P Ceccarelli, C Stoian, M Lamaro, S Varney, T Allan, F Mori.
Yellow card: Trulla 52
Scoring sequence: 3-0 Jalibert pen, 3-5 Canna try, 8-5 Danty try, 10-5 Jalibert con; 15-5 Retiere try, 17-5 Jalibert con, 22-5 Serin try, 24-5 Jalibert con, 29-5 Thomas try, 34-5 Macalou try, 36-5 Carbonel con.
FULL-TIME: France 36-5 Italy
France will face England in the Autumn Nations Cup final after a solid display. They did what they had to do you you always felt they had another gear to go to if they needed it. Many of the second string impressed – Malacou and Dulin in particular.
Try for France: France 36-5 Italy
France have the ball in Italy’s 22 and chip away towards the try line. They work it left and thanks to two fantastic offloads from Woki and Barraque the impressive, and highly rated, Malacou drives over the line for a well-deserved try. They make the conversion and it’s all over.
78 mins: France 29-5 Italy
France have been very professional and done what they needed to tonight. They made the most of the man advantage and while the French XV was inexperienced this match has showcased the strength in depth of the Les Bleus squad.
76 mins: France 29-5 Italy
Dulin has had a wonderful game and he illustrates his class once again by dummying and making 10 yards. It’s energy-sapping stuff for a tired Italian defence, but they hold firm (after 14 phases) and are able to turn the ball over and kick long.
74 mins: France 29-5 Italy
Minozzi drops the ball in the middle of the pitch under no pressure at all. It’s clear both sides are tiring now and making mistakes.
72 mins: France 29-5 Italy
Stephen Varney is on at scrum-half for Italy. The Gloucester 19-year-old qualifies through his Italian mother, Valeria, and made his debut against Scotland earlier this month.
68 mins: France 29-5 Italy
France have this game won and it could be a long remaining 12 minutes for the Italians.
Try for France: France 29-5 Italy
Finally Thomas gets the ball in space – Dulin passes to the winger 30 yards out and the Racing winger pings his ears back and speeds down the right wing before diving over in the corner. There was no way Italy were going to stop the pacy winger.
Jalibert misses the conversion but Les Bleus are now 24 points to the good.
Try for France: France 24-5 Italy
Bang on the hour mark Serin dives over from short range. The powerful pack execute a driving maul to perfection and the scrum-half gets the ball down.
They’ve scored two tries against the 14 men and, as Jalibert converts, it’s France in the ascendancy.
57 mins: France 17-5 Italy
Villiere had made only three yards before that try, but it was a wonderful way to open his international account. Finally the hosts have something to look forward to watching on the highlights.
Meanwhile, Thomas attacks down the right wing, he kicks ahead but is cynically taken out late, it could have been another yellow but Owens and the TMO decide to err on the side of caution.
Try for France: France 17-5 Italy
Italy are down to 14 men after Trulla sees yellow for a deliberate knock on and the French make the visitors pay as Villiere hits the line at pace following a French steal at a lineout. The young winger put on the afterburners coming in off his wing to break the Italian backline to score from 30 yards out. Great try from the Toulon winger.
Jalibert converts and Les Bleus now have a 12-point advantage.
51 mins: France 10-5 Italy
France remain hesitant and have put very few phases of play together. Les Blues change their entire front row. Italy bring on Leonardo Ghiraldini – in a match full of rookies the Italian hooker, with over 100 caps is head and shoulders the most experienced man out there.
49 mins: France 10-5 Italy
It’s all a bit scrappy at the moment and the game is once again crying out for a moment of magic, for someone to take a chance and try to create something.
45 mins: France 10-5 Italy
Mbanda is down after a driving maul and there’s a break in play. Once the Italian forward is up his side has a scrum inside their own 22. Italy retain possession and Garbisi kicks long, but Dulin is in the right place (not for the first time) and kicks back. Garbisi kicks once again, this time finding Thomas and the pacy winger kicks rather than runs at the Italians – not sure why one of the fastest runners in world rugby would decide to do that, but there you go.
44 mins: France 10-5 Italy
Italy see a bit of the ball and, like the French, keep the ball in hand. Tehy work they way to the French 22 but Malacou is brilliant at the break down and wins a penalty.
42 mins: France 10-5 Italy
France force a turnover on the halfway line, and decide to keep the ball rather than kick (promising signs) but the ball comes to the prop Neti, not a speedy back, and Italy turnover.
40 mins: France 10-5 Italy
They’re back under way at the Stade de France – can the Italians dig deep and come back in Paris?
International rugby summed up in 40 minutes in Paris
We’ve seen a lot of power but very little finesse. In short, this match is a microcosm of international rugby at the moment.
The occasions Italy have kept the ball in hand they have looked dangerous and have scored the try of the match.
France have played very little rugby, which is strange because, as with Italy, they have have looked good when keeping the ball and trying to prise open the Italian defence. Les Bleus have the talent and surely they will kick less in the second half and try to bring the likes of Thomas more into the game.
HALF-TIME: France 10-5 Italy
Italy are on the attack with seconds remaining in the half. They have a penalty and kick to the corner.
From the resulting lineout – five yards out – Italy force France into some fine defence but a knock-on brings the attack to an unfortunate end and that’s the last play of the first 40 minutes.
Try for France: France 10-5 Italy
Simple – France have a good scrum and the ball gets to Danty , from 10 yards out the big winger drives his legs and powers over, with the Italian defence unable to stop the youngster. It’s is first try for France.
Jalibert converts and having soaked up a fair bit of Italy pressure France are now into double figures and have the lead.
33 mins: France 3-5 Italy
From an attacking lineout France work the ball to their fullback Dulin who kicks ahead and shows a clean pair of heels, Minozzi jsut beats him to the ball to touch down. Better from the French.
30 mins: France 3-5 Italy
Deep in the France 22, Italy are keeping the ball in hand and looking to dart down the blindside, but unlike last time after 10 phases they concede a penalty for holding on. More promising signs for the Italians.
27 mins: France 3-5 Italy
It’s been a determined performance from the Italians so far. They know this is a good chance to win in Paris for the first time and so far they are doing what they need to do. They look good in the scrum and win a penalty after a France put in and the Italy forwards celebrate as if they’ve scored a try. Good, impressive stuff from Franco Smith’s men, who are brimming with confidence now.
Try for Italy: France 3-5 Italy
Italy have ball in hand for first real time this match and are at least showing some inclination to keep the ball moving rather than simply kick for territory.
Ever so slowly the visitors are creeping into the French half. Zanon breaks into the French 22 and after banging on the door Canna crosses the line following a fine offload and dummy from Garbisi. That was a fine score and shows what can happen if you back yourself to create with ball in hand rather than simply kick all the time. They miss the conversion but Italy have the lead.
21 mins: France 3-0 Italy
Garbisi and Jalibert exchange kicks before the French stand-off finds touch just on the Italy 22. From a short lineout Garbisi kicks straight down the throat of Dulin who then kicks (AGAIN) this time, however, Dulin chases and collects his kick. Italy win a scrum and clear their lines
Italy will be happier with the start than the French, they need to stay in the match for as long as possible.
17 mins: France 3-0 Italy
France finally run the ball, Thomas spins it wide, Woki gets in on the act after an offload from Jalibert but the moves comes to an end when the ball is kicked out…Keep the ball in hand!
13 mins: France 3-0 Italy
France have a lineout just outside the Italy 22. The visitors win possession and have the put in to the resulting scrum, from there they try to clear their lines, Garbisi’s kick doesn’t make touch, and the ball finds its way to Jalibert who kicks. It’s clear the French are playing it safe, but surely they should be keeping ball in hand, building up the phases and testing out this Italian defence?
11 mins: France 3-0 Italy
There have already been a fair few exchanges of kicks – much like a lot of international rugby at the moment. The most recent kick is a fairly relaxed one from Teddy Thomas, it makes all of five yards of territory and, much like a lot of international rugby, this match is in need of some flair and creativity.
9 mins: France 3-0 Italy
Another mistake from Italy as following on from the lineout Garbisi tries to be cute but kicks it out on the full.
7 mins: France 3-0 Italy
Violi knocks on under absolutely no pressure at all and France have the first scrum of the evening. Italy cannot afford to make mistakes like that and gift possession to the hosts. It’s a dominant push from the French BUT Owens blows in Italy’s favour.
4 mins: France 3-0 Italy
The French pack drives inside the Italian 22, however, Owens gives the penalty this time to Italy for holding on and the visitors kick to touch. Good early signs from the inexperienced French forwards.
Penalty for France: France 3-0 Italy
An early penalty for France, the hosts had a lineout before moving the ball inside, and the Italians were penalised for not rolling away.
Jalibert knocks it over from 25 yards. Good confident start for the hosts.
1 min: France 0-0 Italy
We’re under way, the last time these sides met was also at the Stade de France, with the hosts winning 35-22.
We’re ready to go
The teams are out and the national anthems sung – I am a big fan of both France’s and Italy’s ‘songs’, in fact it’s hard to pick a preferred one – so I’m staying on the fence (le clôture in French, and il recinzione in Italian, in case you were wondering…) and saying I like both equally. Both sides gave rousing renditions.
Before the singsong there was a minute’s silence for Christophe Dominici, one of France’s all-time greats.
Italy coach Franco Smith speaks
“We are just as inexperienced [as France], we have to focus on our processes. We have shown some improvement every week. France will be tough to beat tonight.”
France team manager Raphael Ibanez speaks
“We got a good away win last weekend, we knew we had to change the players so it is a new team, we have had little time to prepare the side. We still have to face Italy, it will be interesting, they will have a strong set piece and offer a strong challenge.”
Christophe Dominici RIP
It’s been a week for tragic early deaths of sporting legends and heroes, and French rugby has been mourning one of its stars of yesteryear, Christophe Dominici.
The diminutive winger was a joy to behold, not least during Les Bleus shock win over the All Blacks in the 1999 World Cup semi-final.
Here’s Mick Cleary’s tribute to ‘a bold, rebellious pygmy in a land of giants’.
More on Nigel Owens
It’s clear just how loved the Welsh referee is.
Nigel Owens in numbers…
A quick-witted ref
England continue winning run
Earlier Eddie Jones’ side saw off a spirited Wales in Llanelli 24-13.
As Mick Cleary writes: “There was little polish or fluency to this triumph, but it was exactly what Eddie Jones wanted to see against a limited Wales side.”
Here’s Mick’s verdict on what he saw at Parc y Scarlets.
Ton up for a legend
The Welshman today becomes the first referee to officiate in 100 Tests. Usually the ref is the fall guy for many a defeat and the target of fans sometimes quick-witted ire and vitriol. Owens, however, is unique in being universally liked and respected.
Tonight could well be the last Test he’s in charge of. Ahead of kick-off he told our very own Gavin Mairs about the emotions he’ll have walking onto the pitch.
“I will be very proud to achieve that milestone this weekend. I never thought I would keep going to get 100 Tests. From what I am told, I am still refereeing at the top of my game. It is not a case of hanging around for an extra game and overstaying your welcome. I am still enjoying it and still performing, so there is a sense of that as well. There is also a sense that things are coming to an end. This season will be my last at Test level, and probably professionally as well. It will be. I can understand that if I am not going to be around for the World Cup in three years’ time, they are not going to pick me now.”
Here’s the exclusive interview in full
Italian team news
Italy coach Franco Smith has made just four changes to the team that put in that improved, gutsy showing against Scotland in Florence. Luca Sperandio replaces Mattia Bellini on the wing, while the rest of the changes all feature in a new-look back-row. Gloucester’s powerful flanker Jake Polledri and the impressive Seb Negri drop out and are replaced by Maxime Mbanda and Johan Meyer. Braam Steyn switches from the flank to No 8 to cover Polledri’s absence.
Starting XV: M Minozzi, J Trulla, M Zanon, C Canna, L Sperandio; P Garbisi, M Violi; D Fischetti, L Bigi (c), G Zilocchi, M Lazzaroni, N Cannone, M Mbanda, J Meyer, B Steyn.
Replacements: L Ghiraldini, S Ferrari, P Ceccarelli, C Stoian, M Lamaro, S Varney, T Allan, F Mori.
French team news
Fabien Galthie has named as many as five debutants in a much-changed XV for tonight’s match. With a number of players unavailable for selection due to an agreement between the Federation and the TOP 14, meaning players were only available for three fixtures during this series of internationals, Galthie has made 13 changes from the side that beat Scotland.
Fly-half Matthieu Jalibert and wing Teddy Thomas are the only players who remain from the side that beat the Scots last Sunday. The debutants are prop Rodrigue Neti, locks Killian Geraci and Baptiste Pesenti, centre Jean-Pascal Barraque and winger Gabin Villiere as Les Bleus look to win their fifth international in a row.
Starting XV: B Dulin, T Thomas, J-P Barraque, J Danty, G Villiere, M Jalibert, B Serin (c), R Neti, P Mauvaka, D Aldegheri, K Geraci, B Peseti, C Woki, S Malacou, A Jelonch.
Replacements: T Baubigny, H Kolingar, U Atonio, C Cazeaux, S Rebbadj, B Couilloud, L Carbonel, Y Moefana.
Hello and welcome!
It seems strange to say that victory in a dull, arm wrestle against Scotland at Murrayfield is a sign that France are back to at least close to their best. But after watching that contest in Edinburgh – which Les Bleus shaded 22-15 in a kicking contest that did little to help the argument that International rugby isn’t becoming boring – it’s hard not to conclude that France are indeed back as a force.
England may well disagree but there’s certainly a case to be made that France have been the best side in the northern hemisphere this year. The victory over Scotland last week certainly helps that argument. For while it was, as the scoreline suggests, close, you never really felt that the French would end up anything other than winners. It was the sort of match they have lost many times over the past 10 years, but at Scottish HQ last Sunday Fabien Galthie’s side always held the hosts at arm’s length and did what they had to do to get the win and Autumn Nations Cup points.
That result means they only need to avoid defeat against Italy this evening to ensure their place in the final to face England at Twickenham next Sunday. They are fully expected to not only avoid losing today, but win well. This despite the 13 changes head coach Galthie has had to make – more on that later.
In another sign that Les Bleus are back, France, as with England, have a strength in depth to be envied and Stade Francais flanker Sekou Macalou and Anthony Jelonch, of Castres, are both ones to watch this evening.
The Italians have had yet another tough year and they weren’t helped by the cancellation of the Fiji match last week – the Pacific Islanders falling foul of a Covid-19 outbreak in the squad. Before that non-clash Italy looked good during a 28-17 defeat to Scotland, but up against the ever-improving French are widely tipped to lose tonight.
Stay here for all the pre-match analysis and to see if Italy can spring a surprise.
Source: The Telegraph Travels