KUMAMOTO, Japan — France held off a spirited Tonga comeback to win 23-21 on Sunday and join group rival England in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.
Les Bleus lost 19-14 to Tonga eight years ago in one of the tournament’s big upsets. This time Tonga rallied from 17-0 down and a late try from flanker Zane Kapeli brought it within two points of France. But there was only one minute left and France held firm in a match where it had two second-half tries disallowed following a video review.
“We’ve qualified, first and foremost. It wasn’t easy,” France’s head coach Jacques Brunel said. “I’m not worried, but I’m unsatisfied. We had chances to score heavily in the first half but made handling errors because we rushed things. It’s down to tension.”
Next Saturday’s match won’t get any easier on the French nerves, then, since it’s against 2003 champion England and decides top spot in Pool C.
“Of course they are a formidable team and we know how difficult it will be” Brunel said. “But I think it will be a good test before our quarterfinal.”
France led 10-0 after just six minutes at Kumamoto Stadium, with flyhalf Romain Ntamack landing a penalty goal and then converting center Virimi Vakatawa’s try after he was set up by a brilliant break from left winger Alivereti Raka.
The French appeared to be in an attacking mood and, after Tonga knocked-on about 20 meters out, gained 60 meters through several phases on a surging counterattack. It ended with Tonga conceding a penalty on its own 22, but Ntamack miscued from the left.
Raka made two further strong breaks through midfield before capping an excellent half with his team’s second try. Taking a quick pass from scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, he collected his own kick ahead, judged the bounce well and rolled over for a try after 33 minutes.
“We started poorly. If we had started well we could have won the game,” Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said. “Our lineout was poor, missed tackles. They hurt us quite a bit, especially on that turnover ball.”
Tonga replied with a converted try right on halftime by Sonatane Takulua, who peeled off the back of the scrum and just made it over the line. It was awarded following a decision by the Television Match Official and he converted to cut France’s lead to 17-7.
Center Malietoa Hingano got Tonga’s second converted try early in the second half, after collecting right winger Cooper Vuna’s kick downfield and judging the bounce better than France fullback Maxime Medard.
Hingano’s try came just moments after France flanker Charles Ollivon had one disallowed when the TMO showed lock Sebastien Vahaamahina feeding him a forward pass.
Ntamack’s two penalties gave France a little breathing space again at 23-14 with 20 minutes left, and when right winger Damian Penaud collected replacement scrumhalf Antoine Dupont’s short pass the relief from French fans was evident.
But the celebrations were short live
d when the TMO showed Medard’s arm knocking the ball on when he spilled a high kick during the build up to the try.
For the second straight match, Tonga played better after the break — just like in the 28-12 defeat to Argentina.
“It’s mental thing,” Kefu said. “Something we have to look at.”
Tonga started the second half with intent and camped near the French line for several phases.
But following a quick lineout combination between hooker Camille Chat and Serin which caught Tonga completely off guard, France was charging through the midfield and soon down the other end.
Vahaamahina fed flanker Charles Ollivon and he galloped into the right corner. But referee Nic Berry disallowed it — much to the confusion of Ntamack, who had already taken the conversion.
France paid a price instantly.
Vuna kicked ahead, Medard got bamboozled by a difficult bounce, and Hingano collected it before bulldozing over for a converted try and suddenly it was 17-14.
Just like in Wednesday’s win against the United States and in the opening-game win against Argentina — also 23-21 — the French relinquished a comfortable position.
So Ntamack’s penalty came at the right time, earning some breathing space at 20-14 with 30 minutes left to play.
After Penaud’s effort was ruled out, Tonga sensed a lifeline and threw everything into a desperate late charge.
The diminutive Dupont made a stunning tackle to deny center Siale Piutau a try, but a few seconds later Kapeli collected a kick to the left and scored.
It was too little, too late, but Tonga deserved its ovation as the 29,000-crowd chanted “Tonga, Tonga.”
Despite failing to pull clear of Tonga after a good start, France was never behind and has only trailed briefly — for a total of four minutes against Argentina — in three matches.