Fabien Galthié’s young gun France flew to the top of the Championship table in a superbly-entertaining exhibition of attacking rugby against defiant Italy.
With moody conditions in Paris some feared a close-quarters battle, tell that to Galthié and Franco Smith, with both sides fully committed to attack throughout the 80.
Eight tries were scored in all, France’s five winning the day 35-22 but the Stade de France crowd delighted by moment after moment of classy attack.
Crucially, France’s flying start – Teddy Thomas and Charles Ollivon both over inside 18 minutes – was never relinquished, but the excellent Azzurri skipper Luca Bigi led an almighty fightback, Federico Zani on with a late score that had the home crowd nervy at 28-17.
Enter Baptiste Serin to settle affairs, the replacement No.9 incredibly collecting his own chip through to seal the bonus-point win in style – talk of a first French title since 2010 grows a little louder.
Lightning Les Bleus Start
With La Marseillaise reverberating in their ears France flew into the opening minutes with full-blooded force, that rapid new line-speed evident from the off and Romain Ntamack slotting a penalty three minutes in.
More class from Ntamack’s boot would follow, France attacking at all angles until their fly-half found the telling one with a perfectly-measured grubber for Thomas to touch down one-handed.
Over to the forwards, Antoine Dupont darting left with a superb inside ball earning more yards, several crunching Italian hits coming in but none able to stop Ollivon in the corner – the openside now joint-top tryscorer with Josh Adams on three.
Undeterred, Italy found their first spell of concerted pressure at the beginning of the second quarter and after a couple of Tommaso Allan half-breaks Jayden Hayward passed out to Matteo Minozzi – the 2018 Player of the Championship nominee predatorially diving into the corner.
After one Azzurri score another soon followed, Allan trading penalties with Ntamack for Les Bleus to lead 16-10 as the interval approached.
Still time for one more attack, the excellent Dupont leading it once more with a mazy run into the 22 and a few phases later fizzing a wonderful miss-pass out to the waiting Grégory Alldritt – the petit general simply unplayable.
France led 23-10 at half-time and Italy continued to show proficiency in attacking out wide on the resumption of play, twice skipping away down the left but Mattia Bellini not able to finish down the opposite flank.
Penalties kicked to the corner led France deep into the opposition 22 but Italy repelled them with two excellent lineout turnovers, a third wobbly home lineout carrying the Azzurri up to the other end.
When the pressure mounted France stepped up, right on the hour as a lovely sweeping move saw 20-year-old Ntamack weaving over next to the posts and beating his chest wildly in celebration of the bonus-point score.
Italy would not lie down, dominating the ball until Zani could burrow over on 65 minutes, the game still very much in the balance until Serin’s stunner six minutes from time left Bellini’s late riposte a mere consolation.
There were plenty to choose from, with every possible method of try-scoring explored by the two exuberant opponents.
Serin’s late intervention was the score that finally seized the day but Ntamack’s try, France’s fourth, went a long way to puncturing the impressive Azzurri response.
The youngster had talked of making pre-planned attacks count in this match and his score was the best example delivered, Thomas off his wing, the fly-half dummying left and striding right to the line.
Player Watch – Grégory Alldritt
Dupont was once again excellent but No.8 Grégory Alldritt matched him every step of the way, the hulking 22-year-old fast becoming one of the key men across the Championship.
All in all he claimed 118 metres, made 19 carries and 15 tackles – a decisive 74 minutes that swung this game France’s way.
Tries: Thomas, Ollivon, Alldritt, Ntamack, Serin
Cons: Ntamack, Jalibert
Pens: Ntamack 2
Tries: Minozzi, Zani, Bellini
Cons: Allan 2
France: Anthony Bouthier, Teddy Thomas, Arthur Vincent, Gaël Fickou, Vincent Rattez, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, François Cros, Charles Ollivon (c), Grégory Alldritt
Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Jefferson Poirot, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifenua, Boris Palu, Cameron Woki, Baptiste Serin, Matthieu Jalibert
Italy: Jayden Hayward, Mattia Bellini, Luca Morisi, Carlo Canna, Matteo Minozzi, Tommaso Allan, Callum Braley, Andrea Lovotti, Luca Bigi (c), Giosuè Zilocchi, Alessandro Zanni, Niccolò Cannone, Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri, Abraham Steyn
Replacements: Federico Zani, Danilo Fischetti, Marco Riccioni, Dean Budd, Federico Ruzza, Giovanni Licata, Guglielmo Palazzani, Giulio Bisegni
France v Italy
@ Stade de France
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)