This was as good a performance by Italy as I can remember – yes, better even than the other occasions that they have won Six Nations matches.
They played for a full 80 minutes (something they have seemed incapable of for many a year), they played with patience, they played with pace, they played with width and they played with penetration. They had a half back pairing that worked well together and, in Canna, they seem to have found a 10 that can do pretty much everything that an international 10 should be able to do. Pretty much…… he still has work to do on his place kicking though.
I have to admit to having been a detractor of Italian rugby for some time, even when others have – wrongly in my opinion – said that they have been playing a better brand of rugby under Brunel. My dismay with them has led to a degree of cynisism; so much so that when they began their very first attacking ‘set’ I muttered out loud “how long will they just shift the ball from left to right and then back again”. How wrong was I? A slight change of angle to attack the defenders inside shoulder and ‘Bang’ penetration. A clean break and France were on the back foot.
That is pretty much where France stayed for the majority of the match. Yes, there were glimpses of the free flowing, off the cuff rugby that the very best French teams have all been capable of – particularly the close quarter support work that other teams should take note of- but there was too little of it and the rest of their play was, lets be honest, poor. Their saviour was Plisson with solid kicking – when he took over from the wayward Bezy (as an aside, what is it with French teams and their obsession with Scrum Halves kicking?) and a monster 54 metre strike to take France into the lead with 5 minutes left on the clock, but for me the real, one might say only, shining light was their wing Vakatawa – a 7’s specialist who had not played a game of XV’s for over a year. He was explosive in attack and performed his defensive duties well. Despite this, Guy Noves will not have slept soundly last night.
Sergio Parisse was to the fore of most noteworthy events as far as the Azzuri were concerned – the good and the bad! He scored a try, was held up on the line on another occasion leading to Canna’s, he made multiple line breaks and he was magnificent in the line out and at the back of the scrum. He was immense and, the standout player on the pitch. All things we have become used to. Parisse has been the best player to grace the Italian national team for a very long time and is, no doubt, a world class N°8 – he was again on Saturday.
He is, however, flawed. He has always been a little petulant and I am convinced that it was his anger at being penalised for playing the ball off the ground (leading to Plisson’s kick on 75 minutes) that was still bubbling over when he made the fatal, rash, decision to take a drop for goal at the death. I can just imagine him thinking that he would right the wrong and win the match for his team. In fact, had Castrogiovanni not pulled him away from the referee – as he was back chatting- there is a chance that he might have been warming his backside on the naughty step for the remainder of the game.
We all know that he can kick – there isn’t much he can’t do – but it was simply the wrong decision and, potentially, cost Italy an historic win in Paris. At the stage that he decided to kick, the only thing that was correct was the position on the pitch – just utside the 22m line and central. All Italy had to do was complete one more phase and ensure that one of their kickers – Haimona or Mclean – was in the pocket and ready to pull the trigger. Then maybe, just maybe, we would all be eating humble pie and celebrating a great Italian victory!