TOKYO — 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.