Rugby World Cup 2019
France 23-21 Tonga
A still far from convincing France resisted everything Tonga could throw at them in Kumamoto on Sunday to win 23-21 and guarantee themselves yet another Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
One of only three countries to negotiate the group stage in every tournament – New Zealand and Australia are the others – the French join Pool C leaders England in the last eight, with the two teams meeting in Yokohama next Saturday to determine who tops the table.
Out go not only the spirited Pacific Islanders but also the United States, who pressed the French hard themselves last Wednesday, and 2015 semi-finalists Argentina, who were left to rue that last-minute penalty miss against France on the opening weekend.
Tonga recovered from 17-0 down to 17-14, and after France had stretched nine points clear again, the Islanders scored another converted try just before the end. But they were unable to repeat their famous victory against Les Bleus at RWC 2011 in Wellington, New Zealand.
The Player of the match was winger Alivereti Raka, maker of France’s first try, scorer of the second and a threat whenever he touched the ball.
France needed two points – either in the shape of a draw or bonus points – from the fixture to be certain of progressing into the knockout stages.
They went ahead after three minutes when Romain Ntamack was left with the simplest of kicks after Tonga were penalised following a long throw.
Another one further downfield went horribly wrong only two minutes later and France seized on the chance. Raka raced away, broke through the covering defence and had Virimi Vakatawa inside him for a try that was converted by Ntamack.
Last week Tonga trailed Argentina 28-0 inside half an hour before mounting a comeback and the danger was that they would fall into a similar hole, but with Vakatawa choosing not to put Raka away and then Ntamack missing a fairly easy penalty it remained 10-0 until the 31st minute.
It took Raka to add to the lead. Scrum-half Baptiste Serin tapped and went blind from a free-kick and on receiving his pass the powerful Clermont Auvergne player kicked and regathered to score.
Ntamack converted for 17-0, but Tonga – relieved not to have lock Sam Lousi yellow-carded for a late hit on number eight Gregory Alldritt – ended the half strongly, as they had done last weekend.
After yet another Raka burst ended with him being brought down by Telusa Veainu just outside the 22 play went to the other end, and after storming the French line initially with the forwards, scrum-half Sonatane Takalua dived over, television replays showing he had just got the ball to the line.
He added the conversion to make it 17-7 at half-time and when centre Malietoa Hingano grabbed a wickedly bouncing ball after Cooper Vuna’s kick-through after 56 minutes – just as thunder sounded – the gap became only three with Takalua’s conversion.
Moments earlier Charles Ollivon had had a try ruled out for a marginally forward pass, so things were definitely going Tonga’s way.
Nerves were settled somewhat when Ntamack landed two more penalties to make it 23-14. Another TMO decision ruled out a potential Damian Penaud try – Mexine Medard had knocked on just before – and the French were shocked again with two minutes to go as flanker Zane Kapeli collected a kick to the corner and replacement Latiume Fosita converted. But there was not even a minute left then, and less than 20 seconds when France restarted. They had survived another scare.