France coach Jacques Brunel hailed his side’s spirit after they ended an eight-game winless run with victory against Italy on Friday night.
Mathieu Bastareaud starred on his return to the side, scoring one of the home side’s three tries in a 34-17 win, with Paul Gabrillagues and Hugo Bonneval getting the others.
France were without a number of first-team regulars in Marseille after Brunel dropped several players for “inappropriate behaviour” after the defeat by Scotland in Edinburgh last time out.
But Brunel’s side coped well in their absence and were worthy winners against Conor O’Shea’s visitors.
Quoted on www.sixnationsRugby.com, Brunel said: “It wasn’t easy, the first half was very hard.
“We lacked accuracy near the line, no doubt because there was so much desire that we confused haste and speed.
“But I want to underline the spirit of the team.
“They (Italy) have shown some interesting things. They have a slightly different defensive set-up but you can tell they want to impose themselves and create something with the ball.
“Perhaps a bit less today because France had more of the ball. I’m convinced that Italy are on the right path.”
Italy were ahead early in the first half after a 10th-minute penalty try cancelled out Gabrillagues’ unconverted score.
France took a four-point lead into the break after Maxime Machenaud kicked two penalties to make it 11-7.
The hosts put the game out of Italy’s reach in the second half after scoring two tries without reply before Matteo Minozzi got a consolation try for O’Shea’s men at the end.
The Irishman was proud of his charges despite the loss.
He said: “We knew before the game that it would be a very hard game against a good team under a lot of pressure.
“After about 50 minutes it was 14-10, they had some chances and so did we.
“I thought that we were close and we could put them under pressure in front of their fans. But the match changed.
“I’m proud of the players because it was a very difficult challenge.
“The spirit and the defence against Bastareaud and every runner is difficult. So I’m proud.
“We have so many players lacking experience and they have learned so much from these months but we want to win matches.
“I am proud because I saw them play and learn but they have to improve their discipline.”
France captain Guilhem Guirado said he is not kidding himself that victory over Italy has prepared France for the tougher challenges to come against England and Wales.
France ended a run of eight matches and 11 months without a win on Friday night in Marseille with a 34-17 Six Nations success against the hapless Italians — who had conceded more than 100 points over their previous two defeats to England and Ireland.
But having already lost to Ireland and Scotland and with England up next, Guirado insisted France still have a lot of work to do.
“It’s good, seriously. After one year and all the struggles of last week,” said Guirado, referring to France’s controversial late night out in Edinburgh following their defeat to Scotland, after which eight players where disciplined by the French Federation with one-game bans.
“We won’t brag but we’re happy to win again. But we’re not kidding ourselves, we’re quite frustrated with the way we played because we didn’t get the bonus point in the end and we tried to get it,” he added of their failure to find a fourth try.
“It’s no exaggeration, we wasted eight (try-scoring) chances.
“I’m happy because we had to win and we had to react, but not happy because there’s still a lot of work to do from tomorrow.”
Straight after the match, Guirado was thinking mostly about the chances that went begging.
“I have several images in my head which are obvious, where we dropped the ball, or made one pass too many, or were too slow, or the scrum-half went into the rucks so we didn’t have a passer.
“We know the improvements we need to make and it’s a long road because against teams like England and Wales, that won’t do.”
Mathieu Bastareaud was one of the biggest positives on his return to the side following a three-week ban for shouting a homophobic slur during a club match last month.
He had originally been called up by France coach Jacques Brunel for the first Six Nations match against Ireland but missed that and the Scotland game due to his ban.
But with eight French players given a one-match suspension by their own federation for their behaviour in Edinburgh, Bastareaud earned a recall.
And he repaid that faith by scoring one try and creating another.
“Mathieu Bastareaud was on the original list but wasn’t able to attack the competition because of his ban,” said Brunel.
“We know his profile and his qualities — he has a unique profile. We knew from the beginning he would be useful to the team and he demonstrated that today.
“He gave us what we expected of him.”
Legendary scrumhalf Peter Stringer says the key to Ireland’s success against Wales on Saturday, and to going on to win the Six Nations, lies with their world class scrum-half and fly-half duo – Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.
Stringer who knows something about No9 play, being capped 98 times for Ireland, rates Murray as “an extremely talented guy and in the last couple of years he’s done unbelievably well for Munster, Ireland and the Lions.”
However the 40-year-old doesn’t see many similarities between himself and the current bearer of the No9 green jersey.
“We’re completely different players,” he says.
“My game was about really high tempo, as quick as I could, and really put a pace on the game.
“You see with Conor and the way he plays – a very composed scrum half, particularly with Ireland and the structure (coach) Joe Schmidt has put in place.
“His two key guys are No9 and No10 and I think with the two players that are there it fits their game plan very well.
“I think the way Conor controls the game and puts the structure on it with his kicking game is extremely good.”
The former Munster star says Murray looks composed even “when the team at times are on the rack.”
“He knows what to do to settle things down.
“And he has the ability to score tries as well.
“He’s done unbelievably well and obviously is a key player for Ireland in the Six Nations going forward if they are to win a grand slam.
“He’s certainly one of the guys who needs to perform and he’s been doing that so far.”
Stringer says Ireland coach Schmidt knows exactly how to bring the best out of Murray and Sexton.
“I’ve been watching Ireland for the last number of years and particularly under Schmidt they’re a very very structured team, very composed under pressure,” he explains.
“And they’re a team that have been winning some big games and consistently putting in good performances.
“You trust those guys when you go through those routines in training during the week and it’s a matter of holding on to the ball.”
There was no better example of Ireland’s current composure, and courage, than the final thrilling moments in Paris against France in the first week of this year’s Six Nations, when Sexton’s after the siren field goal clinched a crucial victory.
“Those moments when the forwards are carrying in tight quarters its low risk rugby,” says Stringer, “but then for Johnny to come up with that cross field kick when Ireland weren’t getting that kind of gain line advantage in getting into the French territory – that was a very very brave call.
“Kicking the ball away when you have possession and you need to get some points to win the game.
“Incredibly brave by the team, good discipline – not to give away any penalties, not to give away any knock on.
“Just good control at the break down and ultimately at the end its down to Johnny to make the drop goal from quite a difficult position on the field, quite far out.
“He’s a guy whose so well experienced.
“He’s been in that situation before but he just struck it tremendously well and it was fantastic to see it go over.”
That experience is sure to help Ireland again today to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.
If you want to hear Peter’s expert thoughts before the Ireland-Wales match then head down to McGettigan’s JLT on Saturday afternoon.
Entry is free and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, with doors opening from 15:00, a Q&A with Stringer commencing at 16:00 and the match kicking off at 18:15.