MARSEILLE – Mathieu Bastareaud celebrated his return to the France side following a three-week ban for a homophobic slur with a try in Friday’s 34-17 Six Nations victory over Italy.
Missing the suspended tournament top try-scorer Teddy Thomas, France, who laboured for long periods before Italy typically crumbled late on, won for the first time in nine matches and 11 months.
“We’re happy with the win, but we’re not kidding ourselves, we’re quite frustrated with the way we played,” said France captain Guilhem Guirado to France Televisions.
Italy set their worst run in the competition of 15 straight defeats going back three years.
“I’m proud of the fight, we were taking a pounding, but we scrapped to the end,” Italy coach Conor O’Shea told the BBC.
In what was billed the battle to avoid the wooden spoon after both sides had suffered two tournament defeats each so far, Bastareaud was key in creating one try and scoring another in an otherwise uninspiring affair that failed to light up a stadium more used to hosting football matches.
Tries from Paul Gabrillagues, Hugo Bonneval and Bastareaud proved enough for France as Maxime Machenaud kicked 17 points, although the hosts missed out on an attacking bonus.
Italy scored a penalty try and a late breakaway effort through Matteo Minozzi but too often found themselves dominated at the breakdown and forced into giving away cheap penalties.
Having conceded more than 100 points in their opening two matches, Italy captain Sergio Parisse had spoken on Thursday of the need to keep things tight early on and not give up easy scores.
But their resistance lasted just five minutes after giving away a penalty that France kicked to the corner before a driving maul was stopped short, only for Gabrillagues to scoop up the ball and stretch out his long arms to touch down.
Even so, Parisse said after the match: “Our defence was much better.”
Four minutes later, the Azzurri went straight up the other end, kicked a penalty to touch themselves and then drove over Maxime MBanda for an equalising score.
English referee Wayne Barnes called in the television match official as there was a doubt over whether the flank had grounded the ball.
Barnes decided not, but awarded Italy a penalty try anyway for France collapsing the maul and the visitors led 7-5.
On 29 minutes, Machenaud made up for his earlier conversion miss by giving France an 8-7 lead with a penalty.
Another Machenaud penalty on the stroke of halftime gave France an 11-7 lead in a poor half in which the fans seemed more interested in performing Mexican waves.
France scored within two minutes of the restart, but after quick hands from Bastareaud sent Lionel Beauxis scampering into space, the flyhalf wasted a three-man overlap with a poor pass that went to ground.
Under pressure in defence, though, Italy gave away a penalty right in front of the posts that Machenaud easily slotted over.
Italy wasted a chance to kick three points of their own when again going for the corner, only to have their lineout stolen.
But on 50 minutes, flyhalf Tommaso Allan kicked a penalty to reduce the arrears to 14-10.
But cometh the hour, cometh the Italian collapse as Bastareaud produced a moment of magic to create France’s second try.
With three blue-shirted Italians hanging off the 120kg centre, Bastareaud managed to flip away a one-handed pass to fullback Bonneval, who exchanged passes down the left wing with Remy Grosso before crossing for a beautifully worked try.
Two more Machenaud penalties stretched the lead, before Bastareaud barged over from close range as Italy started to become ragged.
But the visitors had the last word, as they often do once the game is long gone, with a slick move that went right from a lineout on the left before coming back to the touchline and ending in fullback Minozzi picking up a loose ball to dive over.