France record nervy 23-21 win over Italy in Six Nations
By PA Sport
Last Updated: 06/02/16 7:59pm
New head coach Guy Noves was spared an early embarrassment as France came from eight points behind to beat Italy 23-21 in the opening match of the Six Nations.
France had won all eight previous matches between the teams at the Stade de France but for long periods on Saturday, a ninth was in doubt, despite a revelatory try-scoring debut from Fiji-born wing Virimi Vakatawa.
Italy's two previous away wins in the championship they joined in 2000 both came at Scotland's expense, but they led with five minutes remaining in Paris.
Jules Plisson's long-range penalty ultimately broke their hearts and denied Jacques Brunel's side a famous victory and launchpad for this campaign, with Italy captain Sergio Parisse missing a last-gasp drop-goal attempt.
France's tries came from Vakatawa, Damien Chouly and Hugo Bonneval, with Italy's responses from Parisse, winning his 115th cap, and Carlo Canna.
Five hundred military personnel were employed to patrol the first major event to be staged at the Stade de France since the November attacks. President Hollande was present, as he was on the night of the attacks.
On the pitch, France were far from convincing. Noves had 22 years at the helm of Toulouse before taking the international job, winning 10 French league titles and four European crowns.
The 62-year-old will need to pep up the French performance significantly if they are to trouble Ireland on the same pitch next Saturday.
France rode their luck in the first half and might have gone to the dressing room behind, rather than 10-8 ahead. Italy centre Michele Campagnaro was tackled barely a yard from the line in the 40th minute following a scything run.
A warning shot from Italy came in the eighth minute when Canna slotted a 30-metre drop goal, but the fly-half later missed a pair of seemingly routine kicks.
On his debut for France, Toulouse scrum-half Sebastien Bezy also failed to drape himself in glory as he squandered three first-half shots at goal. He was later relieved, and Plisson took the glory.
France's wild-card winger Vakatawa made his first big impact in the 15th minute. Promoted from the Sevens ranks, without a Top 14 club and lacking 15-a-side experience, he looked right at home
Vakatawa darted over in the left corner for an eye-catching try after a spell of French pressure. Fed by Maxime Medard, he side-stepped Leonardo Sato to dot down.
Parisse hit back for Italy when he led a driving maul over the French line and grounded the ball, but Canna fluffed the conversion.
Impressive in spurts, France regained the lead with Gael Fickou orchestrating a tap-penalty move that saw Wenceslas Lauret send Chouly surging over in the right corner.
But there was no letting up from Italy after the break, Canna finally bisecting the posts after an infringement by Eddy Ben Arous to put the buoyant visitors in front, and they thrillingly led 18-10 after a converted try two minutes later.
Parisse was inches away but could not get the ball down. Italy kept possession and Canna steamed in before converting his own score.
A French lifeline arrived when Bonneval buried in at the left corner after a charging run from Vakatawa carried the hosts deep into Italian territory.
Plisson converted and then booted a 69th-minute penalty to inch France ahead at 20-18, but Kelly Haimona responded five minutes later after Uini Atonio was penalised.
It was then Parisse's turn to be penalised, and from 50 metres, Plisson nailed the match-winning kick.