Italy produced a stunning all-round performance to shock France 23-18 at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday and blast the Six Nations wide open.
Usually contenders for the competition’s wooden spoon, Italy proved their victory over the French two seasons ago was no fluke as they defended well and took their chances against the 2011 Rugby World Cup runners-up.
Tries from Italian captain Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, plus 10 points from man-of-the-match Luciano Orquera and three from substitute Kris Burton led them to victory, their third ever over the French.
France were far from their best and despite tries from Louis Picamoles and Benjamin Fall and eight points from a rejuvenated Frederick Michalak, they were deservedly beaten by Jacques Brunel’s effervescent side.
Italy joined England and Ireland on two points and sit in third place after the first round of games, which included another upset as holders Wales lost 30-22 to Ireland on Saturday. A fired-up England were 38-18 winners over Scotland.
Parisse led from the front, putting his team ahead with only four minutes gone with a spectacular counter-attacking try.
The move was started when Luke McLean recovered a France kick and burst through the first line of defense. The ball was fed to the magnificent Orquera, who offloaded to his captain and converted the try.
France responded with pressure and a try bundled over the line by Picamoles looked to have leveled the scores, only for Michalak to miss a conversion.
Orquera extended Italy’s lead to 10-5 with a smart drop goal on the quarter hour and the continued his hot form three minutes later with a converted penalty given for Maxime Mermoz’s offside offense.
Italy’s defense brilliantly held France’s powerful attack in the first half hour, only conceding a 27th-minute Michalak penalty after France had a Yoann Huget try denied by the video referee.
However, Philippe Saint-Andre’s team took the lead three minutes later, Benjamin Fall taking the ball from Huget and scoring a try under the posts which Michalak had no problem converting to give France a 15-13 halftime lead.
Flyhalf Michalak gave France a five-point advantage with a penalty for collapsed scrum with 50 minutes gone.
France looked to be dominatin, but a sudden burst of pressure from Italy resulted in Castrogiovanni scoring his 12th international try on 56 minutes which was comfortably converted by Orquera for a 20-18 scoreline.
Burton, who replaced Orquera, gave his side a five-point lead 12 minutes later with a deft drop goal which had Italy fans dreaming of a repeat of their 2011 heroics when they beat France 22-21 for their first Six Nations win over them.
As the match moved to its close, France turned the screw and with a minute left, Davide Giazzon was sin-binned, leaving the home fans to suffer for the excruciating final seconds of last-ditch defending.
However, they kept their opponents at bay for an incredible win and a dream start to the Six Nations for Brunel against his countrymen.
“I was in emotional turmoil the whole match,” Brunel told reporters.
France coach Saint-Andre was left to reflect on where it had gone wrong.
“We lacked precision and accuracy. We didn’t take advantage of our chances while we were in the lead and the Italians overtook us,” he told reporters.