Italy 23-18 France, February 3, 2013
Italy sound out warning to Six Nations rivals
February 3, 2013
Italy's Giovambattista Venditti celebrates the win © Getty Images
If you didn't know by now - Italy are no longer in the Six Nations to make the numbers up.
The Azzurri's stunning victory over France not only capped surely the best opening Six Nations weekend ever but also silenced those doomsayers once and for all who dare to suggest the battle for the northern hemisphere title is a two-tier competition.
France entered this competition as many people's favourites to take the crown having been arguably the most impressive European side during the autumn when they most notably swept Australia aside - but they fell at the first hurdle against an Italy side fully deserving of their historic triumph. It was only their third ever victory over France but crucially a second win in three years and is not only a great result for Italian rugby but the Six Nations and the game as a whole.
Italy's win against France at the Stadio Flaminio in 2011 quite rightly sent shockwaves through the rugby world but it was dismissed by many who considered it a freak result against a side famed for their unpredictability. Italy's failure to produce that level of performance in their subsequent matches added weight to that argument but they appeared to turn a corner when Frenchman Jacques Brunel took control following the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Last year's Six Nations may have only brought one win - against Scotland in their final game - but England also came very close to defeat at a snowy Stadio Olimpico. More recently, Australia narrowly avoided an embarrassing upset in November but the performance did little to convince the bookmakers that Italy could shake up the Six Nations pecking order. However, it clearly did wonders for Italy's belief and instead of scrapping for a piece of history as they did two years ago, they attacked their rivals with intent from the off and outplayed their rivals to claim a deserved victory.
In no one was the benefit of belief more evident than fly-half Luciano Orquera. The 31-year-old is no stranger to the international stage having made his Test bow way back in 2004 but buoyed by the renewed faith shown by his coach who handed him the No.10 shirt once again in the autumn after a year in the international wilderness he has re-invented himself as the kind of all-action playmaker Italy have sorely missed since the days of Diego Dominguez.
His injection of pace to set up the opening try for Sergio Parisse and the exquisite offload to Martin Castrogiovanni for his score highlighted the enviable game-breaking skill set at his disposal with his fine form with the boot equally valuable. Brunel's decision to withdraw Orquera with a quarter of the game remaining raised eyebrows but the introduction of Kris Burton provided a fresh impetus to keep France guessing and a drop goal that gave Italy priceless breathing room. It was a calculated gamble from the former France assistant coach and one that suggests he knows how to make the most of his limited resources.
Orquera's ability to dominate rested largely on his side's refusal to take a backward step with Parisse once again leading by example but he was not alone in delivering a heroic performance. Castrogiovanni, fullback Andrea Masi, centre Tommaso Benvenuti and Alesandro Zanni were among those determined to down the title favourites and reluctant to offer them too much respect.
Once upon a time, Italy would begin to run out of steam on the hour mark with their brave endeavour so often giving way to an inevitable defeat but not anymore. They continued to frustrate France until the final whistle but were helped by their rivals' woefully lack urgency as the game slipped away and a creative void evident from the opening exchanges. Add in a mind-blowing 20 turnovers and you have the recipe for disaster.
The form that fly-half Frederic Michalak showed in the autumn eluded him in the face of a fired up Italy with his lack of game time at No.10 - he plays scrum-half at Toulon with Jonny Wilkinson the first-choice stand-off - no doubt contributing to his flat performance. But he was not alone in his failure to dictate proceedings with the often imperious flanker Thierry Dusautoir some way short of his best having only recently returned from injury and a formidable front five got little change out of their Italian counterparts. Not even their star-studded bench could turn the game back in their favour.
Quite rightly Italy took a lap of honour to celebrate their victory with the Azzurri faithful but you sense that such jubilation will soon become a thing of the past as results such as these become more common place. Brunel drew much guffawing when he suggested his side could win the Six Nations within a couple of years of him taking the helm last year but suddenly he doesn't look such a fool.
But the real test comes in the coming weeks - never before have they started a Six Nations campaign with such verve - or with two victories - and they must now back it up starting with their trip to Scotland next weekend. You been warned.
Italy revel in their triumph © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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