By Julien Pretot
VIRIMI Vakatawa and Jules Plisson shone in a new-look France team who secured a hard-fought 23-21 victory over Italy in their Six Nations opener on Saturday.
Coach Guy Noves made a winning start as sevens stalwart Vakatawa, who had not played 15-man rugby in more than two years, scored the first try from the wing.
Damien Chouly and Hugo Bonneval also crossed the line and flyhalf Plisson kicked a conversion and two penalties.
Italy responded with tries by Sergio Parisse and Carlo Canna, who also added a drop goal, a penalty and a conversion. Kelly Haimona kicked a penalty.
The Stade de France was under tight security as the gates opened for the first time since last November’s Paris attacks when assaults on bars, restaurants, a concert hall and outside the stadium killed 130 people. French president Francois Hollande attended the game.
Former Toulouse coach Noves was in charge of his first game since taking over from Philippe Saint-Andre after France were knocked out of last year’s World Cup with a record defeat by New Zealand in the quarter-finals, and it was a close shave for his team.
They showed great attacking intentions, passing the ball around quickly, but scrumhalf Sebastien Bazy misfired three times before handing over the kicking duties to Plisson, and the home side sometimes defended awfully.
“We were a bit dominated but prevailed thanks to the crowd,” said captain Guilhem Guirado.
“We can build on this victory but there’s a lot to do and next week comes Ireland.”
Italy went ahead with a fine drop goal by Canna but France hit back when the burly Vakatawa, perfectly set up by fullback Maxime Medard, sidestepped a tackler and touched down for the first try of the tournament.
Louis Picamoles limped off the pitch with a right leg problem after less than 20 minutes.
Parisse dived over with the ball in his armpit when the Italy forward drove over the try line after a lineout as Italy regained the lead.
Les Bleus, playing in a tricolore shirt, scored their second try shortly before the interval after Gael Fickou took a tap penalty and Chouly dived over at the end of an overlap.
Canna slotted home a penalty to put the Azzurri in front again and the flyhalf picked up the ball and touched down after Parisse was halted a couple of metres before the line. He converted his own try to give Italy an eight-point lead.
However, Vakatawa made the decisive break for Bonneval’s try, which was converted by Plisson, who slotted home the winning penalty from almost 50 metres.
France take on Ireland at the Stade de France next Saturday and Italy play England next Sunday.