How was it for you? The morning after the night before with Les Bleus

So it’s the morning after the opening game of the 2012 VI Nations. The pre-match excitement, anticipation and stress has been replaced with satisfaction, reflection and joy.  Now France are top of the table ( for the moment )  I can relax and assess.

Thank goodness for BBC iplayer so it can be devoured again calmly without the oohs, aahs, cheers and leaping up from the couch that usually accompanies the match being watched live.

The Marseillaise was a bit quick….. none of the players or crowd ( or people sitting around my TV in Manchester) could keep up. Hate that when the orchestra or band go racing ahead and you’re left wondering whether to follow the music or the rest of the crowd who are a bar behind. Probably the band wanting to get out of the -2 temperatures and get their hands wrapped around a mug of coffee or a bon grog.

First sensation is joy as we are enjoying seeing continuity of the “robbed of the Webb Ellis trophy by a point and a ref” team. It’s lovely to see some new talent appear as well such as Wesley Fofana. We like and respect Dmitri Yachvilli ( he’s after all the ongoing French record point scorer in 5/6 Nations ) but we’re missing our “chou-chou”Morgan Parra and are hoping to see him run on with a decent amount of time on the clock and not be a token gesture.

After seven minutes of play, possession is 50/50 and the Italians are showing how far they have come in recent years. This game is going to be “compliqué” as the French would say and they are going to have to keep their wits about them.

William Servat looks like he’s having issues with the new boy Vincent Debaty as everytime the scrum breaks down he’s addressing him . Debaty looks concentrated and is respectfully taking it all in. Servat might just be passing on his experience or, we’re worried that he might be missing his camarade in the front row, JB Poux so might just be annoying his new partner.

There’s a flash of brilliance ( and a taste of what’s to come )  just after ten minutes when Julien Malzieu who is running back gets the bounce. If he hadn’t it would surely have ended in an Italian try. Having got the bounce, he doesn’t risk being dispossessed and doesn’t decide to boot it upfield, he decides to sprint with the ball and covers an amazing half the length of the pitch before getting tackled and giving Yachvilli a penalty chance. Yach tucks it away and France get the first points of the 2012 VI Nations on the board 3-0 and can settle down.

The French are pleasing to watch. They are organised, disciplined, are good at getting back in line patiently building familiarity and cohesion for this, their first outing together. Considering they have only had six days together and have a lot to remember with the new regimes of their coaching staff to be implemented, their game seems to be flowing well early on. A few minor hiccups and misunderstandings but nothing too expensive or detrimental.

Italy equalise with a penalty in the 18th minute. Their joy is short lived when France score their first try in the 21st minute. It is a blistering run 15 yards out through the middle of the Italian defence. Seeing that the players are looking away and will be wrong footed,  Aurelien Rougerie storms through the gap and puts the ball down to the delight of the Stade de France and our living room. It’s his 23rd try in 72 tests and caps a hugely successful start to the season that he has had at the helm of the Clermont Auvergne team. Today he is a safe, assured, motivational figure on the pitch. Yach converts and the score creeps up to 10-3.

It’s nice to see that Maxime Medard and Julien Malzieu have their quick feet on them today. It’s a joy to see them break and dance around, taunting the Italian players with sporadic bursts of energy. Max has had oedema problems with his left foot and has been pretty miserable lately. Hopefully things are on the mend.

Thierry Dusautoir as ever is immense and he doesn’t miss a tackle, he is ever present and confirms his role as leader.

We’re now at the bottom of the bottle of Kir Royale that we popped open before the Marseillaise so all is well with the world.  Red, blue and white lights are twinkling over the mantelpiece, the coq is sitting atop the French rugby ball ceremoniously positioned by the TV and Parra’s jersey is hanging proudly waiting for him appear.

It’s the 35th minute of play and the Italians have a scrum which the French win. Louis Picamoles who is having a great game, grabs the ball, steps in and out, starts to run , he hears Malzieu to his left who makes his presence known, then releases the ball.  Edge of seat time again.  We know Malzieu is quick, skilful and powerful but what happens next is a joy to behold.  One, two, three, four, five players beaten and the try set down. Wow ! The ball was safely cradled in his left arm which allows him to push past the opposition players with his arm outstretched to the right.  The Clermont boys have done us proud much to the delight of my daughter whose favourite club colours are yellow and blue at the moment.  15-6.

The conversion is just missed by Yachvilli which means the score going into half time is 15-6 and gives PSA positives to build on in his team talk. As an aside, we think that It’s touching to see the paternal arm of Aurelien Rougerie around the shoulder of Wesley Fofana – provokes an aahh from the sofa. Congratulating him for his contribution in the first half and giving him confidence for the second, no doubt. Time to put the kettle on and then rush back to the sofa to catch the first half highlights.

Restart. We know that we can’t sit back on our laurels and have to keep battling to get more points on the board. Remembering the 2010 VI Nations match against Wales is a testament to the fact that a big lead can be dangerously nibbled away by the opposition if you relax. There are other examples of that , bit of a French maladie. Points difference may well be a determining factor at the end of the tournament so scoring many and conceding few is a good idea.

Francois Trinh Duc seems to have his lost his way from the starting whistle, deciding to gift the ball to the opposition. The Stade de France crowd are untypically hostile to this move and let him know. Not a brilliant reaction to court given the freshly published comments appearing today in a magazine, extracts from Marc Liévremonts book criticising his application. Nevertheless,Trinh Duc has started all of the 2010 and 2011 VI Nations matches and is very experienced.

Italy have a penalty at 46’ and close the gap to 15-9. The 6ft 2, 120kg  Johann Maestri comes on for veteran Lionel Nallet in the 50th minute and will no doubt add a bit of punch to the pack.

Trinh Duc makes up for his shaky second half start three minutes later when he gathers the ball in the middle of the field ( which is looking slightly congested ). He kicks it forward, follows the kick up with an adept outside of the boot tap to propulse it further forward, this is met by  Aurelien Rougerie who cleverly knees it forward into the path of the sprinting Vincent Clerc. Medard was also there in a supporting role sprinting up the wing, ready to gather the ball had it been missed. Rougerie spreads his arms to protect Clerc’s space from the Italian defence who are in pursuit. He could easily have chosen to scoop the ball up himself to score the try but he magnanimously leaves it for Vincent Clerc. In doing so he leaves the number 14 to equal manager Philippe Saint André’s record as the second all time try scorer for France.  Score is now 23-9. Yachvilli steps up and converts to increase the score to 25-9 in the 54th minute.

At 55’ we are wishing that Brad ( JB Poux), Imanol and Morgan might make an appearance. The substitutions are due and in fact they start not long after with Swarzewski coming on to take the place of William Servat. At 59’ the Italians score another penalty and move into double figures.  They have not let the pressure drop on the French side and are still battling no doubt spurred on by memories of the shock defeat they imposed on the French in Italy in the 2011 VI Nations at the in Rome.

Three minutes later Debaty goes off and Poux comes on then justice is done and Morgan Parra arrives to replace Yachvilli. He hasn’t been seen in a French jersey since he had his eye socket broken by Richie McCaw in the World Cup final. He always gets stuck in and gives 100% but he was a real warrior that day, coming back on after treatment but having to retire not long after. He bore the scars for weeks after and his face became the symbol of the way the French restored pride in their slightly erratic World cup campaign. He won the hearts of the French public and came home a (reluctant) hero. The biggest applause since the tries were scored are for him and we’re so pleased. It must take the sting out of having to start the match on the bench.  A few minutes later, the Stade de France, obviously boosted by the appearance of Morgan, erupt into a spontaneous rendition of the Marseillaise (at the correct speed this time ). In Manchester we’re singing Coldplay’s number one hit Parra, Parra, Paradise !

With 16’ to play Imanol Harinordoquy comes on for Louis Picamoles. His famous taped head making him look menacing. Two weeks from his 31st birthday, he has been a regular in the French team approaching  80 caps. Picamoles has been fantastic this afternoon and deserves to be in the French team. He doesn’t deserve to go off but we need to keep him fresh for the next match against Ireland. He’s our new secret weapon……… and Imanol is on our wish list !

Parra, Rougerie and Fofana all interact well and communication between the Auvergnats, as you would expect, is good. After an offensive down the right side by the French, Geldenhuys is sin binned for an infraction close to the try line. In the 73rd minute after a lot of exciting pressure in this area moving from the right to the centre, stop starting and flirting with the line, Parra knows instinctively that Fofana is there and feeds the ball to him. Fofana, quick and strong as ever, keeps the ball safe, pushes his pursuer out of the way and rolls over the line. A magical moment on his international debut in front of his home public. The stuff fairy tales are made of.  The first to congratulate him is his delighted captain Thierry Dusautoir. It’s not often that you see Titi smile but you can see in his eyes which are often so glacial and focused that he is genuinely delighted. Next up are Wesley’s Clermont team-mates Rougerie, Parra and Malzieu. The score is now 30-12 and it stays that way as Morgan Parra misses a relatively easy (for him) kick to convert. My daughter comes up with a new song to herald Wesley’s success to the tune of Oklahoma “Oooohhhh, Fo-fa-na, with the ball, goes racing up the pitch…..”

Rougerie makes way for Mermoz five minutes before time and goes off warmly applauded for a monumental match.

The start of the new era is positive. Four tries scored for the French and none scored against. The Italians are not the easy team they once were to beat. They seem to have more confidence in recent times and their new coach Jacques Brunel ( an experienced French coach who a lot of the French squad know, have played under and have respect for ) is further building up their confidence.

Julien Malzieu wins the accolade of being chosen as the man of the match. Noone would begrudge him that but Louis Picamoles and the legend that is Aurelien Rougerie get special mentions later on in polls by fans on the internet.

We’re sorry when the final whistle goes even though we’re tired from cheering, discussing and getting involved from our living room. I’m sure that the players are more than happy to get in out of the cold and to find each other around a well deserved drink in the changing room. After the World Cup break and concentrating on following Toulouse and Clermont, we have the bug back big time now and are looking forward to the next four games. Three of them will be watched from the sofa and one will be watched from a great vantage point, a first row position near to the posts, side view at Murrayfield. How many times have I driven past and said “I’d love to see a match there”? Scotland is my second favourite team since I have Scottish blood and I get emotional hearing the Flower of Scotland. Between the two national anthems being sung and the excitement of seeing Les Bleus up close and personal again, I’ll be an emotional wreck on the 26th of February. Before that though is the little matter of the Irish who won’t be wanting to lose two games on the trot.

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