abin Villiere notched a stylish hat-trick as France began their 2022 Six Nations campaign with a bonus-point 37-10 victory over battling Italy on home soil.
The fleet-footed Toulon wing notched either side of the interval and again right at the end of the game for the pre-tournament favourites, who got further tries from Antony Jelonch and the terrific Damian Penaud to defeat the spirited Azzurri after making a notably slow start to proceedings in the Paris rain.
While France certainly did not have everything their own way on Sunday and have issues to iron out, the all-important bonus point takes them top of the early table ahead of the potentially crucial visit of Ireland – who brushed aside injury-ravaged Wales on Saturday – in round two.
After an early penalty from French full-back Melvyn Jaminet, the Stade de France crowd were stunned by a debut try from Italy’s Tommaso Menoncello.
After a key mistake under the high ball from Jaminet and a great bulldozing carry from lock Federico Ruzza, fly-half Paolo Garbisi picked out the Benetton wing with an accurate cross-kick and Menoncello somehow managed to keep his feet in touch to dot down in the right corner, with the try upheld after a TMO review.
France’s first score of the afternoon less than 10 minutes later was a real gift, with Welsh-born Italy and Gloucester scrum-half Stephen Varney collecting the loose ball from a scrappy lineout and then trying to pass back to wing Monty Ioane, but instead providing an easy intercept for French flanker Jelonch to race in and dive over for his first Test try.
A quick Garbisi penalty had plucky and battling Italy back in front, but their determined defence was breached again on the stroke of half-time.
After a breakdown infringement, stand-in captain and reigning World Player of the Year Antoine Dupont – one of eight French players to have recovered from Covid-19 – went for the corner instead of another three points and some terrific quick handling across the backline presented spare man Villiere with the chance to dart in from the left and touch down.
France went in at the break 18-10 in front after a difficult conversion attempt from Jaminet sailed through the posts.
They then picked up where they left off early in the second period, with imposing centre Jonathan Danty stopped just short of the line and hooker Julien Marchand then denied a close-range try after a TMO review.
However, France did deservedly push further ahead after a great run and offload from no8 Gregory Alldritt, who teed up Villiere for a second try of the match via a cheeky kick dummy.
The all-important bonus point was secured by the brilliant Penaud, who combined beautifully with Dupont down the French right-hand side before speeding in for try number four.
Villiere then struck again with the clock in the red after fine work from Penaud and Yoram Moefana to seal France’s first Six Nations hat-trick since 2008.