Italy 3 France 39: Chabal sinks teeth into tender Italy

Giant shark too strong for minnows as champions cruise to five-try win
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The Independent Online

Never mind égalité, liberté, fraternité. The French watchword right now is opportunity, and it knocked deafeningly in this stroll past the desperately disappointing Italians. At the outset of the Six Nations and the year of a French-hosted World Cup, several members of Les Bleus answered the call, none more so than Sébastien Chabal, the Sale Sharks No 8 who left his teethmarks all over this one-sided match.

Chabal has long been an outlying satellite in the orbit of France's coach, Bernard Laporte. But he contributed two tries, a turnover, a line-out win here and there and much might and mane at close quarters before he limped off late on.

Chabal collected the man-of-the-match champagne while France's captain, Raphaël Ibañez, had more trouble lifting the new Garibaldi Trophy, which resembled a giant liquorice twirl on a plinth. Not much use for swigging Chabal's bubbly.

This was the focus of the Romans' sporting weekend, with Lazio's home fixture against Chievo in Serie A today falling victim to the blanket ban on football after the death of a policeman in Friday night's rioting at the Catania v Palermo match in Sicily. But there was almost nothing for the capacity 25,000 crowd to get worked up about. Italy have some fine individuals playing for English and French clubs but Test rugby is a step - or two or three - up.

France settled themselves with a penalty by David Skrela after 11 minutes and took control with three tries in the second quarter. A misplaced pass from Gonzalo Canale to Mauro Bergamasco fell to Ibañez, who applied a hefty toe-poke towards the right wing. Christophe Dominici did the rest with another hack on and a kind bounce into his arms. Skrela converted and did so again for 17-0 after 30 minutes, when Chabal and Jérôme Thion surged on the short side and flat passes from Pierre Mignoni and Skrela sent Cédric Heymans to the posts.

Dominici's 22nd Test try; Heymans' eighth: France were further encouraged by a waste of a two-man overlap by Italy's hooker, Fabio Ongaro.

The French killed a ruck to deliver Italy's only points to Ramiro Pez, the Italians' third kicker of the first half after they lost the fly-half Andrea Scana-vacca to injury and full-back Roland de Marigny hooked a 30-metre attempt horribly.

On the stroke of 40 minutes France were in again. Chabal finished it after Thion tapped back a line-out and Mignoni made pop passes to Pieter de Villiers and then Ibañez.

The 27-year-old Skrela had been capped only once before, in 2001, yet with a chance to nail down France's problem position at fly-half he was not quite as convincing as Mignoni inside him. Four minutes into the second half Chabal impressed again, sashaying from line-out to ruck for his second try from another Mignoni pass.

Italy's French coach, Pierre Berbizier, threw on a complete front row of replacements but at 29-3 down the Azzurri were not far off waving the white flag. Italy needed more prolonged attacks. Instead they kicked too quickly and were suffocated by ifs, buts and maybes.

Yannick Jauzion scored France's fifth try in the 63rd minute, from Skrela's cross-kick batted down to Clément Poitrenaud by Heymans. The uncapped Stade Français fly-half Lionel Beauxis came on - Skrela switched to centre - and potted a 45-metre penalty. Chabal was helped off with what looked like a dead leg, but France's title defence is alive and kicking, and the next step is Laporte's announcement tomorrow of the 22 to go to Ireland next Sunday.

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Drawing conclusions from this embarrassingly one-sided romp would be as daft as suggesting England's cricketers are worldbeaters after their win over Australia in Sydney last week. With England, we know they are not. With the French rugby team, we haven't a clue.

When the opposition drop the ball, turn over possession and look two yards slower in thought and deed it is impossible to pass judgement. Only one thing is certain: France will not enjoy this kind of romp when they play Ireland at Croke Park in Dublin next Sunday. That is when we should be able to formulate proper opinions on Bernard Laporte's side.

World rugby ought to be as concerned as the Italians themselves after this result. The No 8, Sergio Parisse, looked the one home player of any class and he posed a consistent threat. Otherwise, Italy were out of their depth. On this evidence, the gap between the traditional rugby-playing countries and the rest is widening, a dire prospect with a World Cup seven months away.

Italy's French coach, Pierre Berbizier, had savagely attacked the reputation and work of Laporte in the build-up. Laporte's team stuffed those comments down Berbizier's throat.

The French did not have to be brilliant to score five tries. They made just as many errors as the Italians in the first quarter, yet what they did have was pace and invention and eventually they cut the defence to ribbons. When Italy had the ball, they recycled so slowly that the French defence was hardly ever out of position.

There was at least the pleasure of seeing Sale's No 8, Sébastien Chabal, make a triumphant return to Six Nations rugby. He looked like a man among boys.

Peter Bills

Italy: R de Marigny (Calvisano); A Masi (Biarritz), G Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français), D Dallan (Stade Français); A Scanavacca (Calvisano), P Griffen (Calvisano); S Perugini (Toulouse), F Ongaro (Saracens), C Nieto (Gloucester), S Dellape (Biarritz), M Bortolami (Gloucester, capt), J Sole (Viadana), S Parisse (Stade Français), Ma Bergamasco (Stade Français). Replacements: R Pez (Bayonne) for Scanavacca, 12; A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila) for Perugini, 48; C Festuccia (GRAN Parma) for Ongaro, 48; M Castrogiovanni (Leicester) for Nieto, 48; R Mandelli (GRAN Parma) for Dellape, 68; A Troncon (Clermont Auvergne) for Griffen, 70; K Robertson (Viadana) for Canale, 77.

France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); C Dominici (Stade Français), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), F Fritz (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse); D Skrela (Stade Français), P Mignoni (Clermont-Auvergne); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibañez (Wasps, capt), P de Villiers (Stade Français), L Nallet (Castres), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), S Chabal (Sale), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin). Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français) for Ibañez, 57; S Marconnet (Stade Français) for Milloud, 57; P Papé (Castres) for Chabal, 71; I Harinordoquy (Biarritz) for Bonnaire, 65; L Beauxis (Stade Français) for Fritz, 67; Milloud for De Villiers, 76.

Referee: W Barnes (England).