AUCKLAND, New Zealand, September 21 – Tonga edged Japan in a World Cup thriller on Wednesday as France angrily rejected jibes that they would be happy to lose their match with the All Blacks here on Saturday.
The Tongans lost their opening two games to the dismay of their many fans in New Zealand, but they gave them something to cheer about with a 31-18 win over the Japanese which keeps their hopes alive, if only just.
Sixteen points from the boot of Tongan fly-half Kurt Morath made the difference as Japan slumped to their 17th consecutive World Cup defeat and failed in their bid to win two games at this tournament.
In the same Pool A, sections of the New Zealand media rounded on the French, claiming that the team they had selected to take on tournament favourites New Zealand in their Eden Park citadel, was an “insult” and a “farce.”
Behind the move was seen to be French manoeuvering to make sure they lose the game and thus ensure an easier route through the knock-out stages.
“It is an insult to the 60,000 who have bought tickets expecting a contest between teams at full strength,” fumed rugby journalist Peter Bills, in a column in the New Zealand Herald.
“France have devalued the most eagerly awaited World Cup game for four years and blown an enormous raspberry at the IRB (International Rugby Board),” wrote Bills.
The match is loaded with historical significance after France shocked the All Blacks in the quarter-finals four years ago, reviving memories of their famous 1999 semi when Les Bleus came storming back from behind to win 43-31.
French coach Marc Lievremont named scrum-half Morgan Parra at fly-half, left usual number eight Inamol Harinordoquy on the bench, while giving Dimitri Szarzewski his first start of the competition at hooker.
The French camp have hotly denied any suggestions that they are sending out an understrength team and insist they are bent on once again defeating the All Blacks.
“I see no reason at all why the French team, even if we won our first two games, would give up on this match,” said lock Pascal Pape.
“Just on an ethical level alone there is no way that would enter our minds and I think it shows a lack of respect for the 22 players selected for Saturday.”
Back Cedric Heyman added darkly that the jibes would act as “an additional source of motivation” for the French side.
The top team in Pool A will face likely knock-out games against Argentina and either South Africa or Australia to reach the final, while the runner-up looks set to play England and then Ireland or Wales.
The All Blacks meanwhile returned to Auckland to complete their preparations for the group stages blockbuster after a four days stay in Christchurch where they consoled victims of February’s killer earthquake.
In the capital Wellington, Australia and the United States unveiled their lineups for Friday’s match with the Americans making a tournament high 14 changes to their starting lineup.
Australia coach Robbie Deans made six changes to the team that lost to Ireland with scrum-half Will Genia captaining the side in the absence of rested lock James Horwill.
“We’ve got a big job ahead of us. The United States showed against ireland that they are a totally committed opponent,” said Genia.
England hero Jonny Wilkinson meanwhile warned his teammates that time was running out for them to eliminate the errors that are marring their World Cup campaign.
Bidding to appear in a third successive World Cup final, England may have won their opening Pool B matches, against Argentina and Georgia, but both fixtures have seen them concede numerous penalties.
Wilkinson is best known for the extra-time drop-goal that enabled then England captain Johnson to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy after a thrilling 2003 World Cup final against Australia in Sydney.
“Mistakes in a World Cup are going to cost you,” Wilkinson said. “They could have cost us very badly in the first half against Georgia.
“We just can’t afford to do it. Sooner or later it will be something we can’t come back from.”