The aristocrats lose their heads

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The Independent Online

An injury-ravaged French team did themselves few favours yesterday. For 40 minutes, they decided not to bother to defend around the fringes at all. Consequently, good Italian driving play resulted in two first-half tries and could easily have brought more.

An injury-ravaged French team did themselves few favours yesterday. For 40 minutes, they decided not to bother to defend around the fringes at all. Consequently, good Italian driving play resulted in two first-half tries and could easily have brought more.

It was exactly the same type of tactical ploy that had troubled England in Rome - so it was surprising that a team coached by Bernard Laporte, known for his attention to detail, seemed so ill-prepared.

All modern defensive patterns start with defending the space directly behind and to either side of the ruck or tackle - yesterday the French seemed to feel that they didn't need to concern themselves with such basics.

The introduction of Raphael Ibanez and Abdel Benazzi at half-time did tighten things up but it was a lacklustre forward display coupled with any number of unforced errors.

Restarts out on the full (always the weakest part of Alain Penaud's game), line-out throws not straight, accidental off-sides and handling errors well into double figures; all these helped to keep Italy well in contention.

Things weren't helped by the revival of an old French tradition - selecting a scrum-half who can't pass. Apparently it was Aubin Hueber's first cap for five years; he might have an even longer wait for his next one. A truly dismal display was capped by completely missing Penaud with a regulation pass from a scrum which gifted Italy their last try.

Overall, it has been a desperately frustrating campaign for the French and there is now real momentum behind calls for a radical overhaul of the playing structure. At present this sees too many lowintensity but reasonably violent games in a 10-month season. Their championship final still provides the greatest occasion in northern hemisphere rugby but they need reform if they are to compete with world-class sides on a regular basis. Yesterday showed, yet again, that their depth is not what it should be. When fit, they still have the best team in Europe.

Italy, on the other hand, must be delighted. They have become more ambitious as the tournament has progressed. They also seem to have overcome the psychological barriers they used to have whenever they played away from home. Their half-backs are excellent and the three-quarter line packs a powerful punch - all the centres and wings are very big men.

Up front their scrummage is sound and their body positions in the drive are excellent. In young Mauro Bergamasco, they have a real star. The way he creates a gap by intelligent use of a body swerve is outstanding. Any self-respecting director of rugby in France or England should be beating a path to his door in Padova - at 20 he is an exceptional prospect.

Ironically the replacement of Diego Dominguez will not be the biggest hurdle the Italians will have to overcome. That is to bridge the gap between Italian club rugby and the Six Nations' championship. On their own, they will not be able to achieve this and I would like to think the other European clubs and unions would act quickly to help create more competitive environments for them. However, I am not exactly holding my breath on that one. Meanwhile, let's just enjoy the refreshing effects of their long overdue presence in the showcase of European rugby.

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