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Italy throw Six Nations wide open

Venue: Nuovi Impianti, Venice
Referee: Jess Beard (New Zealand)

A sensational performance by Italy ended France's hopes of a Grand Slam with a pulsating 17-12 last-play win. 

Italy's win in 2013, by a single point in the pouring rain on a ground close to being waterlogged, always had the hint of fortune about it - that France were neutralised by the conditions as much as anything else. But this evening's win - in near-perfect conditions - was utterly deserved.

France's problems began from the very start, with a fluffed kick-off resulting in an Italian scrum - which held despite the French reputation. Two charge-downs and Italy were on the French line. A smart kick from flyhalf Schiavon then found Magatti on the wing, Then a quick tap penalty - and Magatti was over in the corner. A great conversion, and it was 7-0 for Italy with barely four minutes on the clock.

Italy's sharp start had rocked a French team that included six changes from the team who had beaten Wales - three enforced by sevens call-ups (Mayans and Izar) and the internal suspension of Christelle Chobet, but three more that seemed mainly designed to give young players a taste of test rugby. Most of them started on the bench, but when things went wrong for the French this left the coaching team with few options.

However in less than four minutes France responded with typical a Julie Billes score, completing a back move that had started with a lineout on halfway with a try in the opposite corner. Tremouliere added the conversion to level up the game at 7-7. And for a while it looked as if France were going to take control - but no more scores came.

Then, with 37 minutes on the clock, the Italians struck again. Some great running lines and slick passing stretched the French line to breaking point and Sofia Stefan was in.

But the lead lasted barely two minutes. A perfectly executed training-ground move saw Safi N'Diaye pick up from the back of the scrum, draw in the single defender on the narrow blind-side, before unloading to Caroline Boujard steaming up on the outside. The teams therefore went in level at 12-12.

And that could have been the final score as well. France dominated possession, but great Italian defence mean that the only real chances were two penalties that Tremouliere was unable to convert - the first was somewhat ambitious, but the latter was the sort of kick she has converted in past game.

As we passed the hour we expected Italy to falter, as they had in previous games (against Ireland, and to a lesser extent England). But there was no sign of that - indeed in the final ten minutes it was Italy who started to take control, targeting the inexperienced members of the French team (especially debutant Lina Guerin) with some towering kicks, and gradually pushing a tiring French team back into their own half. With two minutes left Italy won a penalty that was just about kickable, but after some debate decided to go for touch. It did not quite make it - but the in an echo of the start of the game, the clearence kick was charged down, and forced into touch. France had another chance to clear, but a poor pass was knocked on right in front of the French posts. Italy seemed to be set up for an attempted drop goal, but instead captain Gaudino picked up from the back of the scrum, some quick hands and the French drift defence was again too slow leaving Magatti room to go over in the corner, and wild celebrations as the whistle went.

In possible the most complete performance Italy have produced, Severin stood out. She was immense at second row - Italian commentators described her as a 'wall' and set the tone of the team, encouraging them to take it to their opponents. Popped up on the wing to make huge hits. Rigoni also had an excellent game at second row, running some excellent lines and puting in big hits to stop the French attack, while scrumhalf Barattin used all her experience. Coolheaded and commanding throughout she was incredibly effective, working with Gaudino even when scrum going backwards and largely neutralised the considerable threat of N'diaye.

For France inexperience was perhaps the culprit - their defensive line in particular too slow to react when stretched, and few options to turn to when the going got tough (it is notable that they did not use the full bench). However Coumba Diallo was devastating when she came on in the second half, almost saving the game for France when she spoiled Italy's line out in in the final moments of the match, Safu N'diaye was as impossible to stop as ever, on one occasion still moving with three players holding onto her! Heguy and Poublan were effective in the centre with smart lines forcing Italian into last ditch defence. Of the youngsters Lina Guerin had a good debut with ball in hand, but she was often isolated under huge Italian kicks and too a huge hit from Magatti late in the second half. 

But for the championship - incredibly it means that five teams now have a mathematical chance of lifting the title with just four games to go. There has never been a Women's Six Nations like it.

Italy : 3 tries Magatti (4, 80), Stefan (37), 1 conversion Schiavon (5)

France : 2 tries Billes (9), Boujard (40), 1 conversion Trémoulière (10)

ITALY : Furlan – Magatti, Sillari, Rigoni, Stefan – (o) Schiavon, (m) Barattin – Gaudino (cap), Giordano, Este – Trevisan, Severin – Gai (Cammarano, 73), Bettoni, Cucchiella (Coulibaly, 60)

FRANCE : Tremouliere  – Boujard (Guérin, 62), Poublan, Héguy (Abadie, 54), Billes– (o) Cabalou, (m) Rivoalen – N’Diaye, Grand (Pin, 70), Rayssac (Diallo, 38) – Forlani, Bobo – Duval (Carricaburu, 54), Mignot (cap), Arricastre