Vakatawa powers France past Italy
SIX NATIONS REPORT: France wing Virimi Vakatawa was in a devastating mood as he helped power his side to a 40-18 bonus-point victory over Italy in Rome on Saturday.
Fullback Brice Dulin ran in a late try to hand France their first bonus point and only second win. With only one win and two tries scored in three matches, Les Bleus travelled to the Stadio Olimpico looking to redress the balance of what has been a largely underwhelming campaign.
There was a distinct lack of French flair in the Italian capital, where Azzurri captain Sergio Parisse touched down after three minutes to spark celebrations a week after running England close in a controversial 15-36 loss at Twickenham.
But an error-strewn display, peppered by ill-discipline by the hosts handed the momentum to Guy Noves's visitors, who saw Gael Fickou, Virimi Vakatawa, Louis Picamoles and Dulin all touch over.
Fickou touched down on 21 minutes and after Vakatawa bundled over shortly after the restart, Italy saw a try disallowed following video referral before Picamoles ran through in the 67th minute to put the match beyond reach.
Dulin claimed a welcome bonus point three minutes from the final whistle, only for Angelo Esposito to touch down as defiant Italy desperately tried to reduce arrears.
It was France's first win since beating Scotland in Paris last month and Italy's fourth reverse in succession following defeats to Wales (7-33), Ireland (10-63) and England.
Italy had sparked controversy last week in England with 'no ruck' tactics that baffled their opponents and left rugby officials scrambling to review the rules.
But Conor O'Shea's men seemed intent on a more positive approach when, in the opening minutes, Parisse touched down after flyhalf Carlo Canna's superb dummy drew two players to let his captain run through.
Canna missed the conversion from the left side of the 22. Although Camille Lopez hit the first of his 20 points with the boot, a penalty on nine minutes, to reduce arrears Italy came close to a second try soon after only for a knock-on to force a scrum, won by France.
Italy had dominated the opening period but a series of impressive runs and offloads between wing Remi Lamerat and Vakatawa set Fickou free on the 22 metre line to touch down unchallenged on 21 minutes. Lopez hit the conversion for a 13-8 lead and suddenly the pressure was on Italy.
A Canna penalty reduced arrears to 11-13 but France took their half-time advantage to 16-11 when Lopez hit a penalty following a high tackle.
Dario Chistolini replaced hooker Lorenzo Cittadini a minute after the restart, but the hosts were under the cosh from the opening seconds when Fickou's grubber kick towards the tryline sparked panic. Minutes later, France won the penalty advantage and when scrumhalf Baptiste Serin fed Lopez, he offloaded for Vakatawa to run in underneath the posts.
Lopez kicked the easy conversion for a 26-11 lead on 50 minutes and Italy were exposed further when Fickou broke through the middle to offload to Vakatawa, only for Edoardo Padovani to race back with a great tackle yards from the tryline.
Giorgio Bronzini replaced Padovani and minutes later looked to have re-launched the hosts after powering over the line, with Picamoles and one other player on either arm. But after video referral, New Zealand referee Ben O'Keeffe ruled no try.
It was a significant blow for the hosts, and as Italian heads dropped France stuck the knife in.
At a line-out deep in Italian territory, Kevin Gourdon offloaded for Dulin to run clear of the Italian defence to score. A late Italian fightback saw Esposito touch down in the final minute, allowing Canna to make amends for his earlier miss, but it was too little, too late.
Man of the match: Italy's Sergio Parisse is always up there with his work rate, while the rest of his forwards held their own in the first half as they placed the French defence under immense pressure. Louis Picamoles was his industrious self in all facets and France's midfield was more than handy as the game wore on. There was no doubt that Virimi Vakatawa was the stand out as he bashed his way over the gain line with each carry.
Moment of the match: Gael Fickou's try in the 20th minute displaced France's counter-attacking threat. However, a 45th-minute try-saving tackle by Edoardo Padovani to deny Virimi Vakatawa a certain try showed that Italy was not going to go down without a fight.
Villain of the match: To suggest such a thing would be ludicrous.
Tries: Parisse, Esposito
Pens: Canna 2
Tries: Fickou, Vakatawa, Picamoles, Dulin
Cons: Lopez 4
Pens: Lopez 4
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Braam Steyn, 5 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Replacements: 16 Tommaso D'Apice, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 George Biagi, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Giorgio Bronzini, 22 Tommaso Benvenuti, 23 Luca Sperandio.
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Remi Lamerat, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Louis Picamoles, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Julien Le Devedec, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Bernard le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget.
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), JP Doyle (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)