France turned in an error-strewn performance but ultimately got the job done as they downed Tonga 23-21 at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe on Sunday.
The scoreboard says France won but in truth, it was a game that nearly escaped their grasp as Tonga’s physicality coupled with 14 handling errors put the French in grave danger of another loss to the islanders.
The match got off to a blistering start as both sides decided to open up and run the ball from all corners. Imposing figure Virimi Vakatawa scored for France in the fifth minute and when Alivereti Raka got over on the half hour mark it looked like France were going to run away with proceedings. The reliable boot of Romain Ntamack kept the scoreboard ticking over despite his side’s handling errors.
The half and the match took a turn shortly before the break as Tonga scored with their first opportunity as Sonatane Takulua dove over.
The late first-half heroics boosted the Tongans, who returned from the break energised and up for the contest. A try in the 46th minute by Tongan centre Malietoa Hingano was another twist in the tale. The minnows though coughed up two penalties which Ntamack duly put away to keep his side in front.
The second period, though, was marred by France’s inability to stamp out unforced errors that kept Tonga in the contest. They needed no second invitation as they grew in confidence and fought for every metre.
Zane Kapeli scored at the death to reduce the deficit to just two and when replacement Latiume Fosita converted the try it set up a nervy final minute.
France, though, collected the kick0ff and quickly booted the ball into touch to escape with the win that puts them into the quarter-finals.
The loss eliminates winless Tonga, who face USA in their final game.
France – 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Sofiane Guitoune, 11 Alivereti Raka, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Gregorie Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Jefferson Poirot (c).
Subs: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Emerick Setiano, 19 Bernard Le Roux, 20 Yacouba Camara, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Pierre-Louis Barassi.
Tonga – 15 Telusa Veainu, 14 Cooper Vuna, 13 Malietoa Hingano, 12 Siale Piutau (c), 11 David Halaifonua, 10 James Faiva, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Zane Kapeli, 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Halaleva Fifita, 4 Sam Lousi, 3 Ma’afu Fia, 2 Paul Ngauamo, 1 Siegfried ‘Fisiihoi.
Subs: 16 Sosefo Sakalia, 17 Vunipola Fifita, 18 Siua Halanukonuka, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Nasi Manu, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Latiume Fosita, 23 Atieli Pakalani.