France 37 Italy 12: Castaignède conjures French revival

Italian improvement continues but returning magician weaves a second-half spell for victory
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No need to crack open the chianti. The tantalising prospect of a first away win in the Championship for Italy suggested by their gutsy half-time lead soon fizzed away with just a few pops of champagne rugby.

It took an age for the French to get into their stride but with the recalled Thomas Castaignède leading the charge they finished with five tries and in decent heart for the visit of England two weeks today.

Let us be honest about it: to the neutrals among us the thought of Italy, coached by a former French captain in Pierre Berbizier, storming the Stade de France was as juicy as a ripe Beaujolais. It looked on for a while, even if there was hardly anything meritorious other than sheer hard work in the way Italy established a 12-8 advantage, with three penalties and a dropped goal from Ramiro Pez, the fly-half who was one of eight of this Azzurri XV earning his corn with French clubs.

Garryowens and a rush defence were the staples of Berbizier's game plan, and France dealt with neither particularly well to begin with. At fly-half Frédéric Michalak was as close to a preening cock as was allowed, with the traditional touchline fowl banned in the wake of avian flu elsewhere in the country, but his familiar strut was initially betrayed by a lack of assuredness. Michalak cross-kicked too often and in wanting his outside runners to come from deep he gave the Italians the chance to get in French faces.

Still, Italy hardly glimpsed France's 22, and half their points were gifts. Paul Griffen, the Kiwi-Italian scrum-half, was in possession when first Olivier Magne and then Raphaël Ibañez deliberately knocked the ball from his hands. Those offences plus an earlier tug on Sergio Parisse's arm at a line-out by Magne gave Pez his penalties in the ninth, 16th and 23rd minutes. France had opened up with a penalty by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde for a high tackle on the scorer by Salvatore Perugini.

A few dozen or so throaty male voices chanted "Italia, Italia", which was as welcome to the rest of the crowd as a turkey with the sniffles. The French booed and whistled this new sound of the Six Nations: Italian exultation. Soon enough they had a try to cheer.

Needing to put pace on the game, France did so brilliantly with a quickly taken line-out by Aurélien Rougerie on the right wing. Castaignède, the Saracens full-back making his first Championship appearance since 2003, sensed the space to his left, and launched Florian Fritz towards the Italian 22. Rougerie followed up in fine support, France won the ruck and Elissalde's perfect cross-kick fell into the hands of the No 8 Thomas Lièvremont at the right corner for the score.

Elissalde was unable to convert and Italy, using their forwards as midfield buttresses, responded after 31 minutes with a huge dropped goal from Pez.

France looked no more certain of themselves at the start of the second half. Damien Traille, unforgivably, kicked two attacking penalties dead. But the Italians were being whistled loud and often by England's Tony Spreadbury in their 22 and Dimitri Yachvili - on for Elissalde - kicked a penalty on 46 minutes.

Castaignède tried to force the pace, to his own detriment, but you cannot keep a good man down. He made a try for Yannick Nyanga on 56 minutes with a coruscating 35-metre return of Christian Stoica's kick after Christophe Dominici's short pass. There might have been a slight block on Italy's Gonzalo Canale initially but it was a fine counter-attack.

Either side of the Nyanga try Yachvili missed penalties; Pez was also off target after a rare Italian break-out caught Castaignède isolated as Ludovico Nitoglia tackled and Pez tried to rip the ball away. Most of the action was at the other end and Carlo Del Fava went to the sin bin in the 63rd minute after the latest of Italy's technical fouls. In the lock's absence, his side's fate was sealed by a good old-fashioned forwards' try. After long deliberation by the video referee of a French catch and drive, the home side settled for a mass shove from the resulting scrum and a try for the prop Pieter de Villiers.

It was vindication for France's coach Bernard Laporte, who shared the briefest of handshakes with Berbizier beforehand, fielding six forwards over the age of 30. Half of them stayed the course; Italy simply cracked.

The Bergamasco brothers made spiteful late hits in the moves which led to Dominic giving the pass for France's fourth try to Rougerie, and a dancing Michalak dotting down the fifth. Castaignède's long passes were a feature of that last score; his smiling countenance as he was interviewed at the final whistle could just about be construed as "bring on England".

France: T Castaignède (Saracens); A Rougerie (Clermont-Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibañez (Wasps), P de Villiers (Stade Français), J Thion (Biarritz), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), T Lièvremont (Biarritz), O Magne (London Irish). Replacements: S Marconnet (Stade Français) for Milloud, 50; L Nallet (Castres) for Pelous, 77; J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) for Magne, 73; D Yachvili (Biarritz) for Elissalde, 39; D Marty (Perpignan) for Traille, 51.

Italy: C Stoica (Montpellier); P Canavosio (Calvisano), G Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Français), L Nitoglia (Calvisano); R Pez (Perpignan), P Griffen (Calvisano); S Perugini (Calvisano), F Ongaro (Treviso), C Nieto (Viadana), C Del Fava (Bourgoin), M Bortolami (Narbonne, capt), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), S Parisse (Stade Français). Replacements: C Festuccia (GRAN Parma) for Ongaro, 68; A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila) for Perugini, 70; M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano) for Nieto, 65; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Sole, 74; S Picone (Treviso) for Griffen, 2-9 & 60-66.

Referee: T Spreadbury (England).