KUMAMOTO, Japan, Oct 6 – France qualified for the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals on Sunday with a nailbiting 23-21 win against Tonga that sets up a winner-takes-all clash with England to top Pool C.
First-half tries by Virimi Vakatawa and man-of-the-match Alivereti Raka were enough to secure the win for Les Bleus against a spirited Tongan side that competed throughout a tense encounter at the Kumamoto Stadium.
Tonga topped the try-scoring count three-two against a French side that again produced a stop-start performance as they did in their first two games against Argentina and USA.
“We suffered again for yet another match,” grumbled French coach Jacques Brunel.
“We started well, we missed a lot of chances to stretch the gap. We missed three or four chances and then we tightened up. There was tension, errors, we cannot manage the second half, especially at the start,” added an unhappy Brunel.
In the end, it was three penalties by Romain Ntamack that got France through to a quarter-final likely against either Wales or Australia from Pool D — although Fiji still have a mathematical chance of a last-eight spot.
– ‘Allez les bleus’ –
For the first six minutes, the famous French flair was on full display as they raced to a 10-0 lead, roared on by a loud chorus of “allez Les Bleus” from the crowd.
That was to prove an important buffer as Tonga fought back to trail by only three points at 17-14 early in the second half, the heavier Pacific island pack troubling France at scrum time.
When Ntamack penalties extended the French lead to nine points, the tireless Tongans rallied to score a third try right at the death.
While England have motored through their first three matches, an injury-hit France have found life more difficult and Brunel selected his third half-back pairing in as many matches with Baptiste Serin at scrum-half linking up with Ntamack.
Brunel also made 11 changes from the last outing against USA to take the field with arguably the strongest available line-up.
France’s explosive start came while the crowd were still getting settled, a penalty by Ntamack followed by a try for New Zealand-born centre Vakatawa following a stolen lineout.
The attack lines and off-loads were France at their best but just as quickly the unforced errors that troubled them against Argentina and USA returned.
Meanwhile, Tonga settled and began to make a contest of it using their big men to target inside backs Ntamack and Sofiane Guitoune to disrupt the French flow.
It would be 26 minutes between tries for France with their second touchdown coming from the ever-dangerous Raka who chipped past Cooper Vuna and won the race for the ball.
France again swayed between class and defensive errors and after a sustained attack by the Tongan forwards, scrum-half Sonatane Takulua dived around a ruck to score and convert his own try on the stroke of half-time.
– ‘Definitely frustrated’ –
Tonga turned 17-7 down but scored soon after the resumption. Vuna kicked ahead and when French fullback Maxine Medard hesitated on the bouncing ball, Tongan centre Malietoa Hingano burst through to take possession and score.
Two more penalties by Ntamack increased the lead to nine points for France before Latiume Fosita crashed over for the late Tonga try that got Tonga within two with a minute left to play.
However, Tonga were unable to reclaim the restart and France put the ball out after the final gong, much to the relief of the blue supporters in the crowd.
Tonga coach Toutai Kefu declared himself “definitely frustrated” with the result.
“Again we didn’t get off to the best of starts and as you can see in the end, that probably told the difference,” he said.
“There was a period there when the game was in the balance. And the guys hung in and they hung in. You can’t question their effort.”