RWC 2019 Pool Game 3: France outlast Pumas in game of two halves

A classic Rugby World Cup encounter played out in Tokyo yesterday, with France edging Argentina 23-21 in what was the ultimate game of two halves.

A cagey start from both sides was blown apart when the French produced 15 minutes of razzle-dazzle from nowhere, carving the Pumas defence to shreds with the sort of offloading skills that used to be their hallmark, to lead 20-3 at the break.

But just as you were wondering where this Les Bleus side been hiding, they reverted to the unstructured, error-ridden team that have been present for the last 18 months or more in the second half, and a rejuvenated Argentina took control to run it from everywhere themselves and edge in front 21-20.

That forced France to be pragmatic, and the result was the first drop goal of the tournament, successfully executed by Camille Lopez, and enough to ensure a positive start for his side in the so-called ‘Pool of Death’.

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A scrappy opening, with both sides happy to play within themselves and wait for an error from the other, saw precious little open play and plenty of set-piece. A scrum penalty in favour of the Pumas gave Nicolas Sanchez a first shot at the posts, one that the flyhalf who plies his trade in the French Top 14 bypassed. But a rampaging run from lock Guido Petti got his side back inside the 22, and when Les Bleus strayed offside, Sanchez didn’t waste a second opportunity to open the scoring.

However, the concession suddenly jolted France into action, and they showed exactly how dangerous they can be when they set their minds to it. Damien Penaud blasted a path down the right flank with the Argentine defence caught narrow, and when play was switched from coast-to-coast, a step from Virimi Vakatawa allowed Gael Fickou to use his dancing feet and find the line.

Buoyed by their success, France stuck to what was working and went in again within a few minutes. Penaud was causing havoc out wide off the back of sterling work in the centres from Fickou and Vakatawa, and their offloading skills were to the fore when the winger burst down the touchline and span in the tackle to send the supporting Antoine Dupont over in the corner.

Having converted both tries with aplomb, flyhalf Romain Ntamack – son of former French legend Emile – rubbed further salt into Argentine wounds just before the half hour with a penalty. And the Pumas were frustrated even more when a chance to hit back off a driving maul was stymied by a deliberate knock-on from Fickou a few metres from the line, especially when no card was forthcoming.

Successive penalties did earn the French a warning as the scrum descended into an unpalatable mess, only for them to front up at the next engagement and curry the referee’s favour their way. And Argentina’s profligacy was compounded when a high shot from Tomas Cubelli on Yoann Huget, allowed the accurate Ntamack to make it 20-3 at half-time.

To say Argentina needed something – and fast – would be an understatement. And they got it within three minutes of the restart, a lineout maul finally getting some pay with Petti driven over unhindered to get them back within 10pts.

Warming to the task they gathered momentum, pinning the French back inside their half off the back of an improving set-piece and a swathe of penalties in their favour. Another infringement gave them the chance to launch another assault via the maul in the 52nd minute, and the pack did the hard yards again with Les Bleus unable to make any inroads, replacement hooker Julian Montoya flopping over the chalk to make it 20-15.

The well-oiled attacking machine France put on display in the opening stanza, was resembling more of a junkyard wreck in the second forty. The backline were being starved of any ball with which to work their magic, and the defence were visibly crumbling under the pressure and intensity being foisted upon them by a re-invigorated Argentine side.

The Pumas then blew a five-pointer when they headed back infield with an unmarked winger out wide. But they were playing with a penalty advantage, and Benjamin Urdapilleta duly made it a three-point ball game after replacing Sanchez as both pivot and kicker. And the flyhalf – who plies his trade in the French Top 14 – made it 18 unanswered points when he punished another infringement with his accurate left boot to establish a one-point lead.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, if you can call the relative rarity of a drop-goal these days desperate. But needs must, and the experienced Camille Lopez came on and made an immediate impact by dropping back into the pocket and slotting 3pts in the 69th minute to restore the French advantage.

That gave Les Bleus some much-needed oxygen for the run home. But after a rare foray into the opposition 22 earned a penalty when Argentina went in from the side, Ntamack pulled his attempt wide of the uprights. That could have come back to bite them when Fickou was guilty of taking the man in the air from the next play, and Emiliano Boffelli lined the ball up on the tee for a potential match-winner. But the long-range specialist couldn’t find the accuracy to match the distance, and as the siren sounded with France clearing upfield, the Pumas had one more shot at glory.

They lost their chance when replacement scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud darted in to steal the ball, and his support arrived to protect possession and clear to touch. And if there was any doubts as to the importance of the result, the unsavoury sight of both sides going at it on the floor old school style in the aftermath, was an indicator of just how vital this result was in terms of the pool.

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FRANCE 23 (Gael Fickou, Antione Dupont tries; Romain Ntamack 2 cons, 2 pens, Camille Lopez pen) defeated ARGENTINA 21 (Guido Petti, Julian Montoya tries; Nicolas Sanchez con, pen, Benjamin Urdapilleta 2 pens) HT 20-3 at Tokyo Stadium

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