France 37 Italy 12: France reach lift-off with exploration of space

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The Independent Online

The French team were too busy schmoozing with sponsors and black-tie banqueting with the beaten Italians to watch their next opponents, England, in action on Saturday evening. Nevertheless, the simple result from Murrayfield acted as a pleasant pick-me-up to go with the after-dinner cognac. "Scotland's win is very good news for us," said Frédéric Michalak, France's outside-half. "Now we have got genuine hopes of winning the Six Nations."

Hopes or expectation? England will have their own view when they hit Stade de France in vengeful mood on Sunday week. And who knows which face they will see of this maddeningly inconsistent France XV? Although Italy were allowed to lead 12-8 at the interval, France were never in the remotest danger of losing.

Their other face is marked not so much by worry lines as the creases of ageing skin. Remember the "Dad's Army" jibes aimed at Martin Johnson's England in the run-up to the last World Cup? By selecting eight men aged over 30, Bernard Laporte, the France coach, appears to be playing follow-the-leader.

The doubts which set in when France lost their Championship opener in Edinburgh have been only partly assuaged by this middle win in a run of three fixtures here and the unexpected form line through the Scots. "I am very surprised by England's result," Laporte said, "but it does not excuse the way we lost in Scotland ourselves." Among those who will never see their twenties again, the reaction of Raphael Ibañez was typical. "I can understand the management thinking of the next World Cup but for the players it would be a big mistake," said the Wasps hooker. "We are going match by match."

Still, Ibañez played the full 80 minutes here as did Thomas Lièvremont, the 32-year-old No 8 and scorer of France's first-half try. So, too, did Pieter de Villiers, the tight-head prop a year older than Lièvremont. De Villiers' 65th-minute try from an irresistible forward drive finally convinced Italy that their earlier designs on victory - they led through three penalties and a dropped goal by Ramiro Pez - were going nowhere.

France scored four of their five tries in the second half and - crucially, according to Ibañez - got the crowd back on their side with top-class running and appreciation of space from Christophe Dominici and Thomas Castaignède, 33 and 31 respectively.

Castaignède's dashing counter-attack made a third try for Yannick Nyanga and his long passes were instrumental in the fifth, dotted down by Michalak.

As the only team without a win, Italy are adrift of the logjam at the top of the Championship table. They were really no more effective than when they scored zero points in this fixture two years ago. The French, ominously for England, are wearing a cautious smile.

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: D Marty (Perpignan) for Traille, 51; D Yachvili (Biarritz) for Elissalde, 39; S Marconnet (Stade Français) for Milloud, 50; L Nallet (Castres) for Pelous, 77; J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) for Magne, 73.

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: S Picone (Treviso) for Griffen, 2-9 & 60-66; A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila) for Perugini, 70; C Festuccia (GRAN Parma) for Ongaro, 68; M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano) for Nieto, 65; A Zanni (Calvisano) for Sole, 74.

Referee: T Spreadbury (England).