All Blacks beat Springboks, extend streak in group games

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — New Zealand straightened the world champion crown on its head and removed any doubt about its status as Rugby World Cup favorite as it overcame South Africa 23-13 on Saturday in the tournament’s most anticipated pool game.

A resurgent South Africa drew with the All Blacks on their home turf in July and stripped them of the Rugby Championship to make many question whether the New Zealanders had been finally brought back to the field. They also lost the No. 1 ranking they’d held for a decade, but that’s coming back to them after this win that showed off their ruthlessness and depth of skills.

After a cagey start, the All Blacks unlocked the scoreboard by exploiting Springboks errors for 17 points in six minutes to lead 17-3 at halftime. The All Blacks let South Africa back in with a soft try, and the Springboks closed within four points with a quarter to go.

But the All Blacks re-imposed control up front, and two late penalties secured the victory to open their account in a bid for a third successive World Cup title.

New Zealand was stifled by South Africa’s blitz defense for more than a quarter, but pounced on the Springboks’ errors in possession.

A loose pass by scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was hacked on by New Zealand flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, who regathered and was caught in front of the posts by South Africa wing Makazole Mpimpi. South Africa was penalized and Mo’unga kicked the first points for New Zealand, which was energized.

A Duane Vermuelen knock on led to a Mo’unga cross-chip to unmarked wing Sevu Reece. He led a surge down the right touch line with support from Aaron Smith and Ardie Savea. Winger George Bridge then directed Beauden Barrett to take a half gap and Bridge was beside the fullback to take the offload and score.

Springboks flyhalf Handre Pollard then spilled another up-and-under and referee Jerome Garces played advantage. Center Anton Lienert-Brown received the ball squeezed in beside the left touch, turned inside, and cut past three defenders and slipped a fourth. He drew the last man and lock Scott Barrett loped to the posts.

Mo’unga converted both tries and the double strike in three minutes took the sting out of South Africa.

Halftime came as a respite to South Africa, which was being blocked by an All Blacks lineup making more than 90 percent of their tackles at that point.

Right until seven minutes into the new half, when a routine ruck set up by lock Eben Etzebeth wasn’t covered, amazingly, at its most exposed point — the middle. Flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit accepted the gap, stepped over Etzebeth, and ran untouched for a dive beside the posts.

Pollard’s conversion closed the gap to seven points, and then four with a dropped goal from 35 meters.

But fresh legs helped New Zealand regain momentum, giving Mo’unga and Barrett late penalty kicks to put the score out of reach, and retain their perfect record in pool play, now 29-0 over the tournament’s 32-year history.

New Zealand next plays in 11 days against Canada in Oita. South Africa has Namibia next Saturday in Toyota.

France withstands ferocious comeback to beat Argentina

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TOKYO (AP) — Camille Lopez’s international career appeared to be finished not long ago. Now he’s the toast of France at the Rugby World Cup.

His crucial late dropped goal helped Les Bleus see off resurgent Argentina 23-21 in their Pool C opener on Saturday — after Los Pumas somehow rallied from 20-3 down at halftime to lead by one point.

The decisive intervention from Lopez came one minute after he emerged from the bench into a bubbling cauldron of fraying nerves.

Taking a feed some 35 meters out, the quick-thinking Lopez crouched over the ball and drop kicked it with everything his left foot could muster to send it just over the crossbar.

It nearly didn’t make it. But then, Lopez nearly didn’t make it to Japan.

Lopez and scrumhalf Morgan Parra were critical of the coaching following France’s 44-8 loss away to England during the Six Nations in February.

Both players were dropped and Parra — a former mainstay — has not added to his 71 caps.

It seemed Lopez would be frozen out, too, but he has found a way back. And now France owes him one.

For this was a massive win in a tough group that also contains 2003 champion England.

Argentina had a chance to win this match with a last-minute, long-range penalty attempt, but a tactical switch proved the wrong move as Emiliano Boffelli replaced Benjamin Urdapilleta — who had landed the previous two penalties with assurance — and missed from 47 meters.

Argentina then threw everyone forward in one final onslaught and players from both teams clashed as emotions erupted at the final whistle — overwhelming relief for France; bitter despair for Argentina.

“We showed a good attitude,” France coach Jacques Brunel said. “We convinced ourselves we could beat them.”

Luckily so, since another French flop seemed to be on the cards.

Back in February, France led Wales 16-0 at halftime in the Six Nations and lost.

Surely not déjà-vu?

Lopez ensured not.

“We’re crazy. We need to put ourselves in this type of situation in order to get out of it,” France captain Guilhem Guirado said. “It’s been our weakness in the past. For once, we won.”

For Argentina this was a soul-crushing 10th straight defeat and coach Mario Ledesma was aghast at his team’s abject first-half showing.

“We were late to everything, just running after them. There was a lack of urgency and too many missed tackles,” he said. “On the back foot, and we did not play like we need to play.”

He also took a swipe at some of the late decisions by referee Angus Gardner, saying a penalty should have been awarded against No. 8 Louis Picamoles because he was offside intercepting an Argentina pass; that France players were warned by Gardner they risked a yellow card and didn’t get them, and that a France player failed to roll away from a tackle and stopped scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli getting to the ball.

Guirado backed Ledesma’s view of the overall decision-making; saying there was much “nonsense” and a “lack of coherence” in scrums.

It could have been a more convincing win but France does not do cruise control anymore — even after fine tries from center Gaël Fickou and bustling scrumhalf Antoine Dupont. Assured flyhalf Romain Ntamack converted both tries and added two penalties.

The 20-year-old Ntamack smudged his otherwise clean copy book when he went from 4/4 to 4/5 with his kicking, missing a late penalty which would have given the French a five-point buffer. He had some nervous moments before Boffelli also missed his shot at goal.

Argentina took the early lead through flyhalf Nicolás Sánchez’s 14th-minute penalty, but was outplayed for the remainder of the first half.

The second half was a contrast.

No. 8 Ortega Desio rose imperiously to cleanly take a lineout near the line and lock Guido Petti burrowed over for a converted score to start the comeback.

France was getting smashed in the pack, and replacement Pumas hooker Julian Montoya pulled another try back in the 53rd following a driving maul. Sánchez missed the conversion, his kicking was clearly off.

So Urdapilleta took over, and his penalties suddenly had Argentina ahead with 12 minutes left.

Los Pumas fans were doing all the singing among the 44,000 fans at Tokyo Stadium, drowning out nervous French fans dreading recent history repeating itself.

In the end, the French fans had their voices back.

But the players aren’t crowing.

“We’re not going to get carried away, because we’re inconsistent,” Guiardo said. “Qualification for the quarterfinals isn’t assured.”

Still, at least France has cause to feel optimistic about its running game — and has a potential match-winner on the bench.

Australia gets rattled, responds to beat Fiji at RWC

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SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — Rattled, Australia avoided the first big upset of the Rugby World Cup when it rallied from nine points down early in the second half to beat Fiji 39-21 on Saturday.

The two-time champion was knocked back by the Fijians’ intensity and couldn’t get a handle on their elusive running game for the first half, and trailed 8-0, 14-7 and 21-12 before changing tactics to win under the roof at the Sapporo Dome.

“We got tested, definitely,” Australia coach Michael Cheika said.

Australia tightened up, scored two tries off rolling mauls in the space of five minutes in the second half, and ultimately put 27 unanswered points past the Fijians in the last half-hour.

That averted what would have been the most surprising defeat at a World Cup for the 1991 and 99′ winners, who have only lost two pool games in eight previous World Cups.

“Obviously happy to win, yeah, you know there’s no doubt about that,” Cheika said. “That’s the way games go. It’s the World Cup.

“One thing we’ve been talking about inside the team is we’re not looking for perfection. It never happens in this game.”

Australia was tested from the opening whistle.

There were a number of Fijian breaks before winger Josua Tuisova rampaged down the right in the eighth minute, bursting through one tackle and fending off another, to set up a try for flanker Peceli Yato.

Flyhalf Ben Volavola also kicked three first-half penalties for Fiji — against the country of his birth.

Australia worked its way back and trailed 14-12 at halftime with scores by captain Michael Hooper and wing Reece Hodge.

The momentum started to shift, but Fiji was lifted again in the opening exchanges of the second half with a 50-meter breakaway by center Waisea Nayacalevu. He scooped up a dropped pass by Christian Leali’ifano, pushed the Wallabies flyhalf away, and raced half the length of the field to score between the posts.

Japanese fans cheered mostly for the Fijians at the Sapporo Dome, which is usually a baseball arena.

But as Fiji appeared set for its biggest result at a Rugby World Cup, Australia regained its composure.

“We take a lot of positives from that game,” Fiji coach John McKee said. “We really had Australia on the rails, certainly for 40 minutes and for portions of the second half. But we’ve got to close games out. You don’t win test matches by being able to play well for 60 minutes.”

Two tries in the space of five minutes from rolling mauls by hooker Tolu Latu put Australia ahead for the first time in the game in the 62nd minute as the Wallabies finally found a way to neutralize Fiji.

Center Samu Kerevi and winger Marika Koroibete, both born in Fiji, scored late to give Australia a six-tries-to-two victory and make it appear comfortable.

It wasn’t.

At the start, Fiji’s powerful runners were bursting through tackles and knocking the Australians back when defending, and Australia was making errors under the pressure.

Australia hasn’t lost to Fiji since 1954 and that record, and its World Cup reputation, was in major danger.

Hooper finished off a series of drives close to the Fijian line after slipping past the first line of defense and forcing his way low and over the line to make it 8-7.

Hodge’s try from an overlap on the wing, after two more penalties by Volavola, saw Australia close it to 14-12 at the break.

Hodge also took away some of Fiji’s momentum a few minutes earlier with a crunching, try-saving tackle on flanker Yato. Hodge’s shoulder connected with Yato’s head in the contact, though, and the Fijians questioned the legality of the tackle.

Yato left for a head injury assessment and didn’t return to the game, and the decision by referee Ben O’Keefe and the television match official not to take action was under scrutiny. Yato could be out of Fiji’s next game against Uruguay.

Down 21-12 after Nayacalevu’s try, Australia found success in the tight exchanges and the rolling mauls, and Latu scored both his tries in the right corner.

“We went back to some of our basics there and it paid off quite well,” Hooper said.

Australia also forced a series of penalties that resulted in Fiji center Levani Botia being sent to the sin-bin in between Latu’s two tries. That one-man advantage gave the Wallabies enough breathing space to spread the ball a little wider, setting up late tries for Kerevi and Koroibete.

“We were prepared for a strong contest all the way through and just try and get ourselves ahead in the last 20 minutes,” Cheika said. “That was the idea. Because we know the Fijians. We know how good they are.”