ROME (AP) — France once again failed to defend a lead as it was beaten in Italy for the second successive time in the Six Nations championship, falling apart in a woeful second half to lose 23-18 and surrender its Grand Slam hopes on Sunday.
Forwards Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni scored a try each as Italy dealt a massive blow to French hopes of winning the championship after convincing wins from rivals England and Ireland on Saturday.
Two years ago, Italy stunned France with a 22-21 win in Rome and this time the French failed to assert its authority amid the sound and the fury of Rome's Stadio Olimpico, having gone into the break 15-13 ahead thanks to tries from No. 8 Louis Picamoles and winger Benjamin Fall.
After Frederic Michalak's penalty extended France's lead to five points, the cunning and faultless kicking of his opposite number Luciano Orquera helped Italy fight back in the second half. "We enjoyed ourselves out on the pitch. Whereas two years ago France didn't win because there were a couple of scrums at the end where we got lucky with the referee, I think this time we deserved it," Parisse, Italy's captain, said. "I can honestly say I am proud of my team, but we have to stay humble and recover well because we have Scotland next."
Orquera set up both Italy's tries, converted them, and added a penalty and a drop goal to cap a superb performance. France has to regroup and beat Wales at Stade de France next Saturday to keep its Six Nations title hopes alive.
"We stood up to the French, it was hard at times but we held firm and we managed to reverse the tide in the second half," Italy coach Jacques Brunel said. "The French knew we have a tendency to fade in the second half but we held it together to beat this French side."
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre felt his team lacked composure throughout. "We were five points up and we had the chance to kill the match. We were playing 15 against 14 at the end of the match but we hurried things too much," Saint-Andre said. "The Italians have become a good rugby nation, but we could have won. We will have to prepare properly for Wales now."
The French needed Michalak to be at his mercurial best to get them out of trouble, but he struggled to get the backline going. "It's hard to say what went wrong, but you have to congratulate them, they started better than us," Michalak said. "We tried not to panic, but I think we lost the match with our carelessness.
"They are very solid in the front and at the back, they're good players," Michalak added. "But we didn't take our chances and they believed in it until the end." France started brightly, but Italy counterattacked from deep in its own half, and Orquera burst through the French midfield with a surging run and offloaded to No. 8 Parisse to go over in the left corner for the first try after just five minutes.
With France camping near the Italian line Michalak switched the ball from right to left and fed Picamoles, who shrugged off Parisse and fullback Andrea Masi to go over in the left corner. But Orquera knocked over a drop goal from 20 yards (meters) and a penalty from a bit further back to put Italy 13-5 up midway through the first half.
France thought it had scored another try shortly after when its mobile pack swarmed around fullback Yoann Huget and bundled him over the line, but the try was not given after a long consultation with the video replay.
Instead, France got a scrum near the line and forced Italy into a penalty, which Michalak slotted over to reduce the arrears to 13-8. France finally took the lead when Huget held off a tackle, fed center Florian Fritz and he offloaded to Fall, who used his pace to run in from 30 yards for a converted try to put the French ahead for the first time at 15-13.
After a scrappy start to the second half, Michalak punished some Italian indiscipline with a fine penalty to open up a five-point gap. But just like two years ago — when it led 18-6 — France was unable to protect its lead.
"We made too many mistakes in the second half, tried impossible passes," Saint-Andre said. "It's not a problem with confidence, it's a problem to do with precision. At the highest level you have to score when you're on top, but we didn't do that."
Orquera held off a tackle to offload to Castrogiovanni and he bundled over for his 12th Italy try — making him one of the most prolific props in international rugby. Orquera converted from near the posts to put Italy back ahead at 20-18, and things got worse for France when lock and captain Pascal Pape had to go off with a knee injury and was replaced by the inexperienced Romain Taofifenua, with flanker Thierry Dusautoir taking the armband.
Kristopher Burton slotted over a drop goal to pile more pressure on France and leave it needing a converted try to win. France won a lineout close to the Italian line with four minutes left but turned over the ball and Italy got a reprieve. France launched one last attack as Dusautoir led the charge. France won a penalty with 20 seconds to go some 15 yards (meters) from the line, but were forced out of play.