RWC 2019 Pool Game 19: Much-improved USA push Les Bleus all the way

A heroic effort from the USA Eagles has pushed a spluttering France all the way in Fukoaka, Les Bleus eventually running out 33-9 victors after leading by just three points with 15 minutes to play.

As in their previous match against Argentina, France flittered between moments of magic and periods of indifference, as they struggled to put away an American side that were vastly improved from their first hit-out against England.

The kicking skills of flyhalf Camille Lopez were carving the Eagles defence open at times. But a lack of execution and a debilitating penalty count kept their opponent’s firmly in the hunt, until three late tries put an unfair reflection on the scoreboard.

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The rain was falling on and off in Fukoaka, meaning players had to deal with a slippery pitch as well as the humidity. But Les Bleus looked to carry on from where they left off against Argentina, offloading at will and at pace, and drawing a succession of missed tackles from the Eagles as a result.

They had already knocked on the door a couple of times before they blew it open inside six minutes, a lovely chip kick from Camille Lopez over an advancing line, sitting up perfectly for Yoann Huget to run through and over for the first.

The USA had a chance to hit back within a couple of minutes, an offside penalty kicked to touch for a driving maul that was only stopped by another penalty. Buoyed by their near miss, they went for the lineout again, only this time the French maul defence was on point, and they were herded into touch.

A scrum penalty in favour of the Eagles, which did nothing for the state of the pitch, got them back in position to strike again. And this time, when France went offside as they looked to pick and drive their way forward, they were happy for AJ MacGinty to kick the 3pts and keep them firmly in touch after the first quarter.

Les Bleus responded by going a bit more direct, skipper for the day Louis Picamoles barreling his way over and beyond the gain line in a way only he does. And having worked themselves into position, another perfectly weighted kick from Lopez sailed over the heads of every US defender in the line, and straight into the arms of the waiting Alivereti Raka, who didn’t have to break stride to find the corner.

Back came the Eagles, already enjoying more possession inside the opposition 22 than they mustered in the entire game against England. And the pressure was paying off, Picamoles given what amounted to a second final warning from referee Ben O’Keefe for repeat infringements from his side. With a penalty count of 6-0 against them they were lucky indeed not to see yellow, but MacGinty took what was on offer to make it 12-6.

The US continued to scramble and disrupt French ball, gradually slowing the pace of the game to suit their approach, while frustrating Les Bleus’ desire to run amok. And when half-time arrived with just a 6pt margin, France were guilty of losing their attacking structures and overplaying their hand.

The first reaction from coach Jacques Brunel was to send usual captain Guilhem Guirado out into battle, in place of Camille Chat. And he was involved straight away, throwing in for a lineout drive after the Eagles conceded just their second penalty of the match, only for terrific defence to turn over possession, and MacGinty to clear.

Les Bleus went again, and when Sofiane Guitoune broke free on 50 minutes and sliced a path into the 22, he had Raka hugging the touchline to take his looping pass and step his way over. Trouble was, it had travelled forward. No try.

Given a let-off, the Eagles starched up their defensive efforts, blitzing as often as they could and forcing the French back, or into an error. The fact that they successfully reached the hour mark with no further score against them was cause for celebration. But perhaps with the achievements of both Japan and Uruguay over the last week etched into their mindset, they went in search of greater glory.

And when Raka spilt the ball on halfway, MacGinty grubbered through, and Lopez was pinged for holding on under pressure from Martin losefo, the American flyhalf slotted his third penalty of the night to make it 12-9 with just over 15 minutes to play.

Just as Les Bleus looked in danger of becoming another tier one casualty, they produced a timely score. The direct route paid dividends once more, punching metres up the middle for the right to go wide, and after 15 bruising phases had worn down a tiring US defence, Gael Fickou was on hand to celebrate his 50th cap with a dive home for one of the most important tries of his test career.

Unfortunately, from a neutrals perspective as well as an American, that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and within two minutes France had another. A crossfield kick from Lopez to Raka did the damage again, this time the winger felled before he could pull away. But he offloaded for Yacouba Camara to send replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin scurrying home for the bonus point.

The USA didn’t crumble, and they could have got one back if rampaging former Waratahs lock Greg Peterson had found the man off his right shoulder after breaking clear in the 73rd minute. But Les Bleus had the last say, rolling a lineout maul a good 15 metres for newly arrived prop Jefferson Poirot to take the plaudits.

At 12-9 they were looking in strife, at 33-9 they were left sitting pretty. But France will know that if they produce the same scratchy effort against Tonga next time out, they leave themselves open to the same fate that befell them at the hands of the same opposition in New Zealand eight years ago.

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FRANCE 33 (Yoann Huget, Alivereti Raka, Gael Fickou, Baptiste Serin, Jefferson Poirot tries; Ramos con, Camille Lopez 3 cons) defeated USA 9 (AJ MacGinty 3 pens) HT 12-6 at Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, Fukoaka City

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