Battle-hardened France show patience, pragmatism
Thierry Dusautoir starred for France. Photo: AP
PARIS: The defence-driven pragmatism that saw France reach the World Cup final resurfaced in their opening Six Nations victory over Italy on Saturday.
Led magnificently by captain Thierry Dusautoir and indefatigable No.8 Louis Picamoles, France offered up stout defence without ever straying offside, content to play the waiting game as the Italians slowly unravelled.
When the Italians infringed, the unerring boot of Dimitri Yachvili was on call to keep the scoreboard ticking along for the home side.
Favourites France draw first blood in Six Nations
Italy's captain Sergio Parisse (R) tries to catch the ball despite French flanker Julien Bonnaire. Photo: AFP
Tries were also scored by Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Vincent Clerc and impressive debutant Wesley Fofana, as Italy failed to convert their early domination of territory and possession into points.
"It's a first victory. You have to have a smile," said coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who was installed after Marc Lievremont was stripped of the job following the World Cup, where the French lost 8-7 to New Zealand in the final.
"As a coach, you seek perfection but today you saw a great defence, a good discipline and we even scored four tries."
France scored tries through Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Vincent Clerc and debutant Wesley Fofana, allied with 10 points from Dimitri Yachvili's boot, the Italy managing just a drop-goal and two penalties from Kris Burton, and a third penalty by Tobias Botes.
But Saint-Andre, who cut his coaching teeth with English side Gloucester before spells with Bourgoin, Sale and a return to France with Toulon before taking on the national job, said there were also downsides in his team's performance.
"The glass is half full and half-empty," the 44-year-old former France winger said.
"Up front we could have performed better. We lacked aggressiveness at the start of match in clearing out and as for taking the game to them, we did some things of quality but we were often guilty of failing to finish them off well.
"We won two scrums against the head, including one that led to Malzieu's try, so we can't say the scrum was irregular as such. On our lineout, however, we lost a lot of ball."
Saint-Andre acknowledged that patience was key to the game, given that Italy had held out in the World Cup against Ireland and Australia for the opening hour of each match.
"We analysed the World Cup matches and up to the 60th minutes it was always 9-6, 6-6, and it was really in the final 20 minutes that you saw the difference so we had to be patient," he said.
"We saw in their game a tactic to go for territory but today they were much more ambitious in their gameplan and keeping the ball.
"Italy employed a strategy that saw them keep the ball. They didn't give it up easily."
Saint-Andre also had a sharp word directed at replacement scrum-half Morgan Parra, speaking out at the annoyingly regular image of players booting the ball into touch to bring the game to a premature end, often to boos from the public who have paid a lot of money to attend international Test matches.
"I wasn't happy about the last action," he said. "We saw a situation where we kicked the ball into touch.
"You must play the ball, enjoy it. The match was won, sure, but you mustn't kick the ball into touch. The pleasure of playing must carry on until the final second."
Meanwhile, Italy coach Jacques Brunel was left to ponder the shortcomings of his team.
Worrying for a team whose strength has always been based on a strong tight five, their scrum creaked badly, and they lost two against the head, one of which led directly to a crucial French try.
"In the first half, we kept a lot of possession and took the initiative, and dominated territory, and were only 15-6 down at half-time," said Brunel, who took over from South African Nick Mallett after the World Cup.
"But we made two mistakes in the scrum, which didn't go well, and we paid a heavy price.
"We showed a good spirit on the pitch, always trying to attack and put the French on the backfoot. It's sometimes difficult to find the words to explain the missed passes and everything else that went wrong.
"We put the French defence under pressure but the final gesture just got away from us, but the spirit was there and that's the most important thing."
The main lesson learnt, Brunel said, was for all "to know that to dominate is not to win".
"I think we enjoyed 75 percent of territory and 65 percent of possession in the first half," he said.
"We also had three or four chances to score a try but we never managed it, as France did.
"That shows their value, they were able to turn everything around with very few chances. That's the difference.
"But we're on an interesting path. We want to continue advancing."
Captain Sergio Parisse, who plies his club trade with Top 14 outfit Stade Francais, called on his team to be more cynical.
"We've had very little time to work together before this match. We knew coming here for a result would be tough against a team who are World Cup vice champions, at home," the No 8 said.
"We showed ambition, a desire to play, we had lots of ball but we needed to be more cynical because we had chances to score but didn't."
He added: "At half-time with the score at 15-6, we said to one another 'hey that's not bad, we can cause them trouble'.
"But I don't recall having dominated the game. France had some ball on the turnover, played it well and managed to score some tries."