LONDON: Four years ago, France were at odds with their coach and, at times, with themselves, yet they conspired to reach the World Cup final against the hosts, New Zealand. Here, despite the best efforts of their supporters to turn Twickenham into the Stade de France, they were equally out of sorts for long periods but the goal-kicking of Freddie Michalak and the solidity of their world-class No 8, Louis Picamoles, gave them an edge which Italy never looked like blunting.
With Ireland having run up a half-century to lead pool D earlier in the day, victory was France’s main concern but a greater worry was the loss early in the second half of their dangerous wing, Yoann Huget. He appeared to lose his footing and was helped off, in tears, trailing his right leg. If the damage is serious enough to end his tournament, it will be a severe loss and it certainly affected his side’s concentration.
Of greater concern to the organisers will be the huge penalty count of more than thirty which so interrupted the flow of the game. Craig Joubert, who refereed the 2011 final, was following instructions, many of the awards punished offside offences and players will have to learn their lesson quickly. If they do, it will create greater space for the attacking spectacle which all neutrals will hope becomes the keynote of this World Cup.
Events on the south coast might have served to inspire Italy in their first ever World Cup meeting with France but there was little evidence of it, beyond raw emotion. First-night nerves clearly affected both teams in the opening quarter and twice Michalak rattled an upright with penalty attempts. Not that Allan met with greater reward when he pulled Italy’s only scoring chance of the first quarter wide and by the time he was successful with his second penalty attempt, France should have built a far greater cushion.
Eduardo Gori foolishly gave Michalak an easier kick at goal by conceding ten metres for kicking the ball away after a penalty award, and France were denied a try which they deserved on territory alone. Picamoles, inevitably, helped create the chance for Noa Nakaitaci after a flowing back move, bouncing his pass off Leonardo Sarto, but Nakaitaci knocked on in the act of touching down and France had to be content with a penalty, the referee having played three advantages in the course of the build-up.
Leonardo Ghiraldini tried to inspire his side and France gave their opponents every opportunity with a series of handling errors. Remarkably, all six scrums before the interval went to Italy but their front row proved fallible; their lineout was less so but Italy could find no continuity and the departure with injury of the experienced centre, Andrea Masi, disrupted the back division.
So it was left to Michalak to build his side’s advantage. Two straightforward penalties sandwiched a massive effort from fully 54 metres by Scott Spedding, the full back finding the target from way out on the left and a yard inside his own half.
Michalak’s fifth penalty opened the second half but, much more significant was the run by Nakaitaci which led to the game’s first try. The Fijian-born wing escaped down the left and Guilhem Guirado showed remarkable pace to support him. The hooker was brought down a metre short but, behind the ruck, Michalak stabbed through a grub kick and Rabah Slimani followed up to score.
The try freed up a hitherto stifled game and Italy threw caution to the wind. Though Sarto was held up his fellow wing, Giovanbattista Venditti, worked his way over and there might have been a try for Gori but for the slightest of fumbles., Shortly after came the loss of Huget which so disconcerted France yet they came again in the final quarter and Nicolas Mas became the second prop to score, ensuring there could be no way back for Italy. Even without the leadership of their injured captain, Sergio Parisse, they tried but the defence was not to be breached again.