Hugo Bonneval’s second-half try proved pivotal as France ended their nine-match winless run and left Italy facing another Six Nations wooden spoon after a tense battle in Marseille.
France’s 34-17 victory – their first since March – came despite an error-strewn display, with the hosts relying on the boot of the scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to keep their noses in front before Bonneval’s dramatic score on the hour mark.
Facing the team he managed for five years, France’s head coach, Jacques Brunel, made five changes to the side that lost to Scotland – with all of the players sanctioned after a night out in Edinburgh dropped from his squad.
The French pack started strongly with Paul Gabrillagues going over after five minutes from a rolling maul, but Italy hit back immediately with a penalty try. France dominated the rest of the first half but could not add a second try, although two penalty kicks from Machenaud edged them 11-7 ahead at the interval.
Machenaud’s third penalty gave France breathing space early in the second half but Italy’s Tommaso Allan cut the gap and the stage appeared set for an attritional battle. The tension built inside the Stade Vélodrome but was suddenly released as Bonneval went over, collecting a clever pass from Rémy Grosso after a break started by the returning centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
France then found another gear, with Bastareaud adding the try his performance deserved and Machenaud adding two more penalties. Matteo Minozzi’s late breakaway try for Italy will keep expectations in check with England up next for Brunel’s team.