Antoine Dupont’s absence was barely felt as Matthieu Jalibert produced plenty of magic to help France punch their ticket for the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals by crushing Italy 60-7 on Friday.
Flyhalf Jalibert’s lightning quick passing and inspired try lifted Les Bleus to the top of Pool A with other tries by Damian Penaud (2), Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Peato Mauvaka, Yoram Moefana (2) and Thomas Ramos, who also scored 15 points from the tee.
Fabien Galthie’s team, without Dupont as the mercurial scrumhalf recovers from cheekbone surgery, won all their group games and are likely to face defending champions South Africa on October 15, even if Ireland and Scotland are still possible opponents for a place in the last four.
New Zealand, who demolished Uruguay 73-0 at the same Groupama stadium on Thursday, finished second in Pool A on 15 points, three behind France.
Italy had a huge mountain to climb, having lost their last 13 matches against France, who were on a 17-game winning streak on home soil.
The mountain proved much too high and, a week after Kieran Crowley’s team suffered a 96-17 humiliation by the All Blacks, they conceded their biggest defeat against their neighbours.
The halfback pairing of club partners Maxime Lucu and Jalibert showed they were more than a replacement option as they combined perfectly throughout.
The 58,102 crowd clapped along to Italy’s anthem, Fratelli d’Italia, but there was no mercy when the game started, with Penaud dotting down on his team’s first phase of play for his 34th international try.
Ramos converted and added a penalty to put the hosts in the driving seat.
Bielle-Biarrey then ghosted past a couple of defenders to dive over after Jalibert and Penaud created an opportunity out of chaos in the Italian 22 metres.
It was then Ramos’s turn to touch down after Penaud’s offload spilled into his hand, leaving the fullback to trot past the line and convert effortlessly.
Italy made their first proper foray into French territory in the 26th minute.
In an ironic reference to Italy’s 2006 soccer World Cup campaign, when the Azzurri beat France in the final, the stadium played the Italians’ favoured “White Nation Army” by the White Stripes during some rare breathing space for the visitors.
Italy, however, got into their stride before the break, although Simone Ferrari’s try was ruled out after a TMO review showed the prop’s earlier tackle on Maxime Lucu was illegal.
The hosts added another try on the stroke of halftime as Penaud collected a splendid cross-field kick from Jalibert to go over again to become the second all-time France try scorer, three shy of Serge Blanco’s tally of 38.
Jalibert was on the finishing end early in the second half as he finessed his way over with a dummy and some brilliant side-stepping. Mauvaka scored France’s sixth try as he bundled over from a maul before Galthie started to send the replacements in.
One of them, Moefana, added the seventh after being set up in the corner by Jalibert.
Italy finally got on the scoresheet thanks to Manuel Zuliani’s try, which Tommaso Allan converted, but the Azzurri’s slim hopes were already long gone.
Moefana added a last try for France and for good measure before the speakers blasted out Gloria Gaynor’s hit “I will Survive” – France’s theme song from their triumphant 1998 soccer World Cup campaign on home soil.