France closed in on a Six Nations Grand Slam with an emphatic 46-20 victory over Italy at the Stade de France in Paris.
David Marty notched two tries with Imanol Harinordoquy, Marc Andreu, Yannick Jauzion and Alexandre Lapandry also crossing as the hosts delivered their most thrilling display of the year. As a result only England stand in the way of their first clean sweep 2004 with their eagerly anticipated clash set to bring the curtain down on the Championship next Saturday. Morgan Parra weighed in with five conversions and two penalties against a lacklustre Italy who were made to pay for a woeful defensive performance. Late tries from Pablo Canavosio and Carlo del Fava added some respectability to the scoreboard but were no more than a consolation.
France made two changes to the side that accounted for Wales last time out with winger Andreu handed his first start at the expense of Julien Malzieu while Marty got the nod ahead of Mathieu Bastareaud after the Stade centre was hampered by injury during the week. Meanwhile, Italy were able to name the same side that upset Scotland in Rome after prop Martin Castrogiovanni recovered from a muscle strain.
The home side began with real purpose as William Servat and Thierry Dusautoir got involved in a thrilling short side break that caught the Italians napping, but Francois Trinh-Duc's drop goal attempt sailed wide of the posts. However, the tone of the game had been set with the French determined to run the ball whenever possible.
The hosts were soon pressing again with Parra exploiting a gaping hole in the Italian defence and as he surged into the 22 the ever-impressive Harinordoquy arrived on his shoulder to take the pass before powering over. Parra's conversion cemented France's deserved lead.
A bright start from Italy centre Gonzalo Garcia was then ended by a blood injury and there was more trouble with Parra slotting a penalty to take his side out to a 10-point lead. France's desire to play with width was insatiable and the dancing feet of fullback Clement Poitrenaud laid the foundation for the next scything break. He passed to winger Andreu, who launched a kick and chase only to be taken out by Garcia, who having only just returned to the game was sent to the sin-bin for his troubles.
France turned the screw from the penalty and a smart miss-pass from Trinh-Duc found Marty, who strolled through another huge defensive hole before speeding away for the second try of the game.
The capacity crowd did not have to wait long for the next try with Poitrenaud, oozing confidence, sparking the attack from deep before feeding Parra who shaped to kick before offloading to Harinordoquy, who opened his legs before putting Marty in for his second score - this time in the corner. Parra was unable to hit the target with the conversion from out wide.
Italy coach Nick Mallett opted to haul scrum-half Tito Tebaldi off on the half hour and replace him with Pablo Canavosio in a tactical ploy. It did little to stem the French onslaught but an infringement at the breakdown at least allowed Mirco Bergamasco to put his side on the board with a penalty.
France wasted little time in inflicting more misery on Italy after the restart with Parra landing his second penalty after just two minutes, but Bergamasco hit back almost immediately with a successful kick of his own.
Italy fly-half Craig Gower and his No.8 Alessandro Zanni then combined well in midfield to conjure a rare attack and Canavosio took up the cause with a kick and chase but the French defence were alert to the threat.
Usual service was soon resumed with the movement of the French backline dumbfounding the Italians with Andreu the beneficiary on this occasion. The Castres wing celebrated only his second Test appearance by powering over for his first international try with Parra slotting the easy conversion.
Andreu then turned provider with an electric burst carrying him through the lacklustre defence, where he found Jauzion who used all his experience and strength to stretch for his side's fifth try. Again the conversion was no trouble for Parra who then switched to fly-half with Trinh-Duc making way for scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili.
Pressure on Gower then forced another penalty with France this time opting for a shot at the posts - which Parra pushed well wide of the mark.
Some more half-hearted tackling from Italy gifted France their next try with Malzieu skipping through before feeding fellow replacement Alexandre Lapandry who had the legs on a tiring defence for try number six.
It was Italy who grabbed the next score. As he was for most of the game, Gower was the key player for the Italians, creating the opening before Paul Derbyshire added some pace. He then found replacement del Fava who outpaced the defence to get over for the try.
France were guilty of switching off again soon after and Canavosio pounced on their lapse with a superb break off the base of the scrum. An injection of pace took him away from the defence and a step did for winger Alexis Palisson before he touched down for his second try in as many games. Bergamasco added the extras to restore some credibility to the scoreboard. But that would be as close as they would get with France closing out the game for an emphatic victory.