FRED ALERT: Almost two thirds of France's points against Italy were scored by fly-half Frederic Michalak
LONDON, 19 Sept - France made a solid start to their World Cup campaign against Italy at Twickenham on Saturday as fly-half Frederic Michalak edged closer to becoming his nation's highest-scoring Rugby World Cup player.
Michalak put five penalties and two conversions over the bar for 19 points in a Pool D match marred by disciplinary offences by both teams.
Although France ultimately triumphed 32-10, the match was largely a scrappy affair. Both sets of players became increasingly bad-tempered – arguing and pushing between phases of play – and referee Craig Joubert was kept busy attempting to maintain discipline.
After the match Italy head coach Jacques Brunel questioned Joubert’s decision-making.
"We didn't really understand the referee and the way the referee took his decisions led to the imbalance of the game,” he told a post-match media conference.
Brunel said he would “rather not think” that Joubert had had a particular problem with prop Martin Castrogiovanni.
“For a very long time we had no issue. We've had 12 scrums in all and we've been penalised six times and five on our put-in. I think that's quite a lot really,” he said.
His comments were met with a blunt retort from French coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
“Italy were on the limit, very close to the offside line,” he said. “If Jacques Brunel is angry, he should look at the video."
Whether or not Joubert made the right decisions, it was undeniable that the play was particularly physical and several players suffered injuries. The most serious were to Italy centre Andrea Masi, taken off in the 11th minute, and to French wing Yoann Huget, who suffered a knee injury.
Both coaches voiced concern over the condition of their men. Italy head coach Jacques Brunel pointed out that Masi is the third Italian centre to have been injured in recent weeks, following pre-tournament injuries to Luca Morisi and Gonzalo Garcia.
Saying that Masi may not be fit for Italy’s next match against Canada on Saturday 26 September, Brunel noted he may well find himself having to call in a replacement.
Meanwhile Saint-Andre said the prognosis for Huget was “not reassuring”, adding that the wing could have suffered damage to his ligament.
"There'll be a check-up and scan tomorrow but we'll make a decision quickly," he said.
Despite the numerous penalties – Italy conceding 19 and France 17 – Joubert only used Television Match Official (TMO) Shaun Veldsman three times throughout the match. In the first half the TMO overruled a previously allowed try by French wing Noa Nakaitaci, ruling that Nakaitaci had not been holding on to the ball as it touched down.
The TMO’s help was enlisted again in the 49th minute after Italian scrum-half Edoardo Gori thought he had tapped the ball over the line, only for the try to be disallowed for similar reasons as Nakaitaci's, with the crowd voicing its disapproval. Veldsman’s help was also called for as Joubert queried a tackle by French hooker Guilhem Guirado, eventually awarding yet another penalty to Italy.
Tries were few and far between. French prop Rabah Slimani scored early in the second half after racing onto a smart Michalak grubber. Later on Nicolas Mas, brought on to replace Slimani, dotted down France’s second try of the evening to put Les Bleus into an unassailable winning position. The try was Mas’s first in 81 appearances for France.
Italy’s sole try came just after the unsuccessful effort by Gori. Wing Giovanbattista Venditti pushed the ball over the line after a couple of minutes of increasingly scrappy play.
While Italy had the majority of possession, the Azzurri were unable to make the most of their time with the ball and made barely half the metres gained by France.
Captain Leonardo Ghiraldini admitted that his team had failed to make the most of their possession.
"When we had the ball we managed to push forward,” he said. “We didn't score the points we needed to in the first half when we got into the 22. In the second half after good actions we didn't manage any completion.”
There were several moments in the last frantic 10 minutes when the Italians thought they were close to adding another five points to their tally, but Les Bleus’ defence held up.
Meanwhile, Michalak is now just three points away from equalling Thierry Lacroix’s French RWC record of 124 points - a score he seems likely to hit in France's next match against Romania on Wednesday 23 September.
The kicker was positive about his return to World Cup rugby after a break of eight years and a series of injuries.
“It's hard when you get injured. I think I was the only one who believed that I could be here, only me and my wife and family, and sometimes they had doubts. But it's not enough to be here, I want to win something."
France have won their first match. But as captain Thierry Dusautoir acknowledged, Les Bleus will have to improve if they want to win the tournament.