France underlined their Six Nations title credentials with a clinical performance to gain revenge over Italy for last year’s embarrassing defeat in the opening match.
That setback in Rome consigned Les Bleus to the wooden spoon for the first time since Italy were welcomed into the competition in 2000, but a blistering second-half spell in which Philippe Saint-André’s side ran in three second-half tries in the space of 10 minutes quickly erased the memory.
Centre Wesley Fofana was the star of the show, scoring one try and creating another to give France their second successive victory, despite a sluggish start. Only leading 9-3 at the break, No 8 Louis Picamoles, Fofana and a debut try from left-winger Hugo Bonneval settled nerves in the Stade de France to set up a crucial showdown with reigning champions Wales in Cardiff in the next round of fixtures.
“We haven’t won two matches in a row since 2012, so that’s important,” said Saint-André. “We wore the Italians out a lot in the first half, even though we didn’t vary our play enough. In the second half we played very, very good rugby. We went from 9-3 to 30-3 in no time at all.”
Right-wing Tommaso Iannone claimed a late converted try for Italy, who have begun their campaign with two defeats and host Scotland next in a match that already seems certain to determine who will end the tournament with the wooden spoon.
“It’s a strange feeling, because for 60 or 70 minutes we were close to France’s level and at times even got on top,” said Jacques Brunel, the Azzurri’s head coach. “But those 10 minutes or so [in the second half] totally changed the game.”
In windy conditions, only the sharp bite of the weather prevented the fans from falling asleep in a scrappy opening half bereft of attacking rugby, and where just four out of 10 kicking opportunities were taken. Scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain missed two and stand-off Jules Plisson was wide with a dropped-goal attempt.
The floodgates eventually opened three minutes into the second half when Picamoles picked up from the back of a maul and stretched over for his sixth international try. Opportunism from Fofana two minutes later extended their lead and the game was over as a contest when Fofana and Yoann Huget combined to set up Bonneval.
The closing stages will be remembered for red cards rather than running rugby as South African referee Jaco Peyper sent off substitute props Michele Rizzo and Rabah Slimani. Rizzo started the skirmish with a head-butt, and when Slimani reacted in similar fashion, Peyper brandished red cards after conferring with his assistant Craig Joubert and consulting television replays.
They became the first players to be sent off in a Six Nations game since 2006 when Scotland lock Scott Murray was dismissed against Wales in Cardiff. It was the first double dismissal in Five or Six Nations rugby for 22 years, after French forwards Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato were sent off against England.
Asked about the sendings-off, Saint-André said he needed to look at video footage, but Slimani and Rizzo will now face disciplinary hearings. It meant France were briefly reduced to 13 players following the earlier sin-binning of lock Sebastien Vahaamahina for kicking the ball away.
“The yellow card was very harsh,” Saint-André added. As for the two red cards, he replied that he “just preferred to see the three good tries we scored”.
“Last week, the beginning of the second-half against England was terrible, so we were very focused to start well in the second-half. It was a good 60 minutes, but very disappointing for the last 20; we just didn’t have any ball.”