Saturday, January 28

Gabin Villière hat-trick fires France to opening victory against Italy | SixNations 2022

Supposedly this was a question of how many tries France would score; how quickly they would emulate the bonus-point victory achieved by Ireland against Wales on Saturday. As it turned out, a coherent and brave effort by Italy on a sodden afternoon in Paris made it more difficult than expected.

For all the talk of a “New England” and despite their 27-point defeat, perhaps it is Kieran Crowley’s Italy who are starting afresh. They were ultimately overwhelmed by the tournament favourites’ intensity and muscle, and Gabin Villière’s hat-trick, but can be proud of how they competed.

“I think today’s performance was very, very good in some aspects,” Crowley said. “But there was some consistency in certain areas that let us down. France suffocated us in that second half [but] it’s a good basis for us moving forward.”

Juan Ignacio Brex’s early charge hinted at Italian intentions before the French full-back Melvyn Jaminet opened the scoring with a penalty. Les Bleus’ first attempt to run the ball looked ominous, Romain Ntamack finding Gaël Fickou in the Italian 22, whose angled grubber narrowly evaded Villière.

But when Jaminet failed to gather Stephen Varney’s box kick, Federico Ruzza pounced and carried into the French 22. Paolo Garbisi launched a cross-kick right, where the debutant Tommaso Menoncello did remarkably well to catch and dot down. Garbisi drilled the conversion through the sticks as Italy – and any neutral viewer hoping to witness a contest – rejoiced.

Cameron Woki was soon spoiling the Italian lineout ball before Varney’s improvised pass was stolen by Anthony Jelonch, who sprinted clear and dived over. Another Garbisi penalty edged the Azzurri back ahead.

As the first-half clock turned red France kicked a penalty for the corner and then came a glimmer of vintage French flair, the ball gliding through the hands of Jonathan Danty, Ntamack and wing Damian Penaud. Villière made use of the drenched pitch to dive early and slide in. Another cultured strike off the tee by Jaminet made it 18-10 at half-time.

Danty crashed to within inches of the line for France two minutes after the break – Italy escaped – but when Garbisi was turned over, Antoine Dupont displayed his freakish strength before a wondrous offload by Grégory Alldritt had Villière jinking to the line again.

It was 23-10 but the floodgates failed to open. Italy remained within two converted scores for nearly 20 minutes but the French bonus point was secured with 12 minutes left, Penaud and Dupont exchanging passes and tearing down the right for Penaud to score.

Beyond 80 minutes, Villière sealed an eye-catching hat-trick. Fabien Galthié, absent after testing positive for Covid-19, has seen his team tested before the potentially crucial match against Ireland on Saturday. “It’s a very satisfying victory,” said Galthié’s deputy, Raphaël Ibañez. “Five tries and five points to kick-start the Six Nations.”

Dupont, asked if France or Ireland are favorites for next week, said: “It’s up to you [the media] to answer that question. We just have to focus on the game.”

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