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Italy 23 France 18: Parisse's men deliver warning to Scots

Time went backwards yesterday in Rome, but the victory over France felt like a fast forward to the future for the Italians.

Italy celebrate a second consecutive home win against France. Picture: Getty Images
Italy celebrate a second consecutive home win against France. Picture: Getty Images

With the French camped deep in their territory, and the hosts holding a slender 23-18 lead, Welsh referee Nigel Owens ordered the clock to be switched back from 79 minutes, 35 seconds to 79 minutes dead and despatched one of the Azzurri replacements, Davide Giazzon, to the sin bin.

For a few brief seconds, it seemed as if the visitors might gain a reprieve that they didn't deserve, given their anaemic and anodyne performance, but Italy, proud and pugnacious to the last, clung on and sealed a victory which ensures they will travel to Edinburgh for Saturday's match against Scotland with higher expectations than simply avoiding the wooden spoon.

For neutrals, this match was a reminder of the gradual, inexorable improvements which are occurring in Italian rugby, both on and off the pitch. The Olympic Stadium was close to capacity for an enthralling tussle, which, on paper, pitted home grunt and growl against travelling grace and glamour.

Yet these stereotypes no longer really apply, not when one is talking about such wonderful players as Sergio Parisse, who produced another majestic showing, replete with class and commitment, from first kick to last whistle.

The captain's heroics galvanised those around him to such positive effect that the Italians established a 13-5 lead in the first 25 minutes. They were assisted by a significant contribution from their stand-off, Luciano Orquera, whose mazy burst was the catalyst for the ubiquitous Parisse to open the scoring, with his try converted by the Zebre back.

He has spent most of the season immersed in defeats and deflation, yet added a penalty and drop goal as Italy dominated the early exchanges. France, the epitome of fancy-dan faffing around, lost in Italy in 2011 and rarely rose above the mediocre this time, neither exerting control against their opponents in the tight, nor parading their normal sleight of hand in the loose.

Granted, they turned things around in the second quarter and led 15-13 by the interval with touchdowns from the impressive Louis Picamoles and Benjamin Fall. However, despite trailing at the break, Parisse and Jacques Brunel, the Italy coach, rammed home the message that this was a contest in which they could seize the spoils.

From a Scottish perspective, one of the most worrying aspects of the subsequent proceedings was the streetwise professionalism with which the supposed underdogs went about their job.

They slowed the ball down, transformed the breakdown into a coruscating war of attrition where such redoubtable characters as Martin Castrogiovanni, Andrea Lo Cicero –who should gain his 100th cap at Murrayfield – and Alessandro Zanni ruthlessly squeezed the life out of their rivals.

To be fair, France were lacking in ambition and devoid of va-va-voom, but, nonetheless, they still looked as if they might shift up a gear when Frederic Michalak, whose subdued, one-dimensional display summed up the French, slotted a penalty in the 50th minute.

However, that simply proved the spur for Italy to launch a terrific counter-offensive and it was no more than they merited when Orquera crafted a sublime opportunity for Castrogiovanni, from which the prop surged over.

That, and Orquera's conversion, made it 20-18 and when Kris Burton replaced the starting No.10, he swiftly stamped his authority on the game with his adopted country's second drop goal to push Brunel's team to the brink of success.

Thereafter, France huffed and puffed, but the Italians were not to be denied and the confidence they will have derived from this result can hardly be overstated, as they seek to bolster their reputation.

They came agonisingly close to springing an upset against Australia during the autumn tests, but fell just short. Now, though, there is evidence they are learning how to grind out wins in these close encounters. That is something which is, sadly, still on the Scots' to-do list.

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