France booked their place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals but made hard work of beating Tonga 23-21 in Kumamoto.
Jacques Brunel’s men looked set to triumph with ease on Sunday when they moved into a 17-0 lead, thanks largely to the impressive Alivereti Raka scoring one try and laying on another for Virimi Vakatawa.
However, Tonga – who famously stunned France with a 19-14 win in the 2011 pool stage – came roaring back, cutting their deficit to three points through converted scores from Sonatane Takulua and Malietoa Hingano.
Two Romain Ntamack penalties gave France breathing space, but they ended up hanging on for victory after a 78th-minute try from Tonga’s Zane Kapeli. Les Bleus will know they must improve significantly in order to beat England on Saturday in what is now a shootout for first place in the pool.
Tonga were ultimately punished for a sloppy start, which saw them fall 10-0 down inside six minutes.
An early Ntamack penalty was followed by Vakatawa’s score, the centre left with an easy finish after Raka’s fine break and pass.
Raka got on the scoresheet himself after 31 minutes, collecting his own chip to dot down after Baptiste Serin’s quick tap-and-go had caught Tonga napping.
Yet the underdogs were given hope before the break when scrum-half Takulua burrowed over for a score he also converted.
Charles Ollivon galloped over for France early in the second half, but his try was chalked off for a forward pass from Sebastien Vahaamahina and Tonga immediately capitalised on the let-off, Hingano crossing after Cooper Vuna’s kick had bounced awkwardly to deceive Maxime Medard.
A pair of three-pointers from Ntamack eased French nerves and ultimately proved vital as Kapeli latched on to a high kick to earn Tonga a deserved bonus point.
FULL TIME at #RWCKumamoto
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 6, 2019
RAKA MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
France were frustratingly poor in the second half, but Raka stood out in the opening period.
The wing’s power and pace was in evidence as he assisted Vakatawa’s early score, but Raka also showed he has plenty of skill when chipping the ball around Vuna to set up his own try.
TMO KEEPS TONGA IN THE HUNT
Tonga’s Sam Lousi was perhaps fortunate to avoid a yellow card in the first half, after thundering his shoulder into the back of Gregory Alldritt.
The TMO then came to Tonga’s rescue twice after the interval, correctly ruling out a pair of France tries.
Ollivon’s score was disallowed due to Vahaamahina’s forward pass while Damien Penaud also saw his celebrations cut short as the TMO spotted a knock-on from Medard.
KEY OPTA STATS
– France have reached the knockout stage of this year’s Rugby World Cup to preserve their record of having never been eliminated at the pool stage. They are one of just four sides to manage that, along with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
– Raka gained 142 metres against Tonga, the most by a France player in a Rugby World Cup match since Clement Poitrenaud gained 155m against the USA in 2003.
– Takulua scored his ninth try for Tonga. Only five players have more for the country in Test rugby.
– Sione Kalamafoni and Siale Piutau both made their 11th Rugby World Cup appearances, joining Vunga Lilo and Soane Tonga’uiha as Tonga’s most capped players in the competition.
France face England in Yokohama on Saturday, with top place in the pool – and a likely quarter-final against Australia – up for grabs.
Tonga will be confident of claiming a first win of the tournament when they round off their campaign against the USA the following day.
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