ROME (AP) — France put down a daring Italy 29-24 on Sunday and played its part in setting the stage for the eagerly awaited Six Nations showdown with Ireland next weekend.
The French, ranked No. 2 in the world, will be defending the title against the Irish, ranked No. 1, and the nominal title favorite. France hasn’t lost since 2021 and Ireland hasn’t lost at home since 2021, when France last visited Dublin.
But to extend its winning streak to 14 tests, France had to overcome an unexpectedly serious scare from Italy.
Italy fought back from 19-6 down to lead for the first time in the match at 24-22 with less than a quarter to go. It had been 10 years since Italy had beaten France or won at home but the huge crowd at Stadio Olimpico weren’t the only ones on edge.
France was making uncharacteristic errors under pressure; a remarkable 18 penalties, 13 turnovers and a yellow card conceded for the first time in more than a year. Shaun Edwards, considered the world’s best defense coach, believed it was the most penalties any side of his has given away in 22 years in rugby union.
The difference ultimately came from a late injection of fresh reinforcements. Sekou Macalou earned a turnover and fellow replacement Romain Taofifenua gave the last pass for new flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert to crash over for a bonus-point fourth try with 13 minutes left.
Italy hammered France to the end, though. Tommaso Allan missed a long-range penalty and a last-gasp lineout drive was broken up by France to end the match in relief.
“We’re in a good habit at the moment of winning tight, close games,” Edwards said. “It happened (in the autumn) against Australia, South Africa. Hopefully, we’ll continue that habit but we all know if we don’t up our performance next week we’ll be on the end of a 15, 20, 30-points hiding.”
Italy ended a 36-test losing streak in the Six Nations only in its previous match, but its self-belief has grown, and a high-risk game plan unnerved the French. Italy was willing to run from its own 22 and try and disrupt with offloads, box-kicks and chips. Kicking out was the last option.
“This isn’t the Italy side from the Six Nations a few seasons ago,” new France winger Ethan Dumortier said. “They surprised us.”
France was composed enough early on to turn forced errors into a 19-6 lead inside half an hour. Tries were finished by Thibaud Flament from a chargedown, Thomas Ramos from an attack that had its origins in a scrum penalty, and debutant Dumortier after Gregory Alldritt stole ruck ball.
Italy hardly flinched, though, and when it pushed a kickable penalty into a corner lineout, Stephen Varney attacked the blind. Fullback Ange Capuozzo cleverly made Alldritt slow up, then dived beside the left corner flag.
Allan couldn’t convert but his third penalty on halftime cut France’s lead to 19-14.
A Ramos penalty put France up 22-14 but Italy responded with another lineout drive. Italy hooker Giacomo Nicotera looked set to be driven across but France’s Charles Ollivon dragged him down illegally. He was sin-binned and Italy given a penalty try.
France’s lead was slashed to one until Allan’s fourth penalty kick from four put Italy in front in the 62nd. But it couldn’t hold on.
“It’s quite tough to swallow this defeat,” Allan said.
But Italy’s improvement took another massive step, and roused anticipation of their next match with France in the Rugby World Cup pools on Oct. 6 in Lyon.
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