France survived a huge scare as they started their Six Nations campaign with a nerve-racking 29-24 away victory over Italy on Sunday.
The defending champions were 24-22 down going into the last 15 minutes before replacement flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert scored the decisive try after Thibaud Flament, Ethan Dumortier and Thomas Ramos, who kicked the other points, had touched down in the first half.
Italy, who made the most of France’s poor discipline, responded with Ange Capuozzo’s try, a penalty try and points from the boot of Tommaso Allan, showcasing their newly found flair and self-confidence but coming up just short as Les Bleus claimed their 14th test victory in a row.
France, who had 18 penalties against them, travel to Ireland next Saturday with Italy taking on England at Twickenham next Sunday.
“We were against one of the top teams in the world. There are regrets but also a lot of pride,” said Italy fullback Capuozzo, who scored his sixth try in eight international appearances.
France were more relieved than proud.
“We’re going to try and keep the positives from this test but obviously there were more negatives than positives,” said captain Antoine Dupont.
It all started well for Fabien Galthie’s side but things began to unravel before the interval and it took the huge depth of their bench to finally prevail at the Stadio Olimpico.
Their aggressive defence made the difference early on as Flament charged down a kick from Stephen Varney before scoring between the posts.
Italy made it to the board with Allan’s first penalty but the Azzurri were on the brink. Shortly after Charles Ollivon had a try ruled out for a knock-on, Ramos picked up the ball that Damian Penaud and Capuozzo were competing for following Romain Ntamack’s cross-field kick to touch down and give the visitors a nine-point lead.
Allan slashed it to six with another penalty as France paid for their ill-discipline – a shortcoming they failed to correct after the break.
But another cross-field kick from Ntamack was collected by Dumortier, who finished his run between the posts to celebrate his maiden cap with a try.
Italy, however, hit back through Capuozzo, who dived for the corner after evading Gregory Alldritt’s tackle, before Allan reduced the arrears to five points with another penalty kick.
Following an early penalty for France, Italy were awarded a penalty try and Ollivon was sin-binned for collapsing the maul.
With an extra man on the field and a one-point deficit, the hosts were fired up and they took the lead just before Ollivon returned to the field with Allan’s fourth penalty.
Galthie’s changes, however, quickly paid off as Jalibert dived over after being set up by fellow replacement Romain Taofifenua to restore France’s lead for good.