France encountered a sterner than expected challenge in the form of an impressive Japanese outfit in the second Pool A match in Auckland tonight, eventually winning 47-21 in a match that belied the close nature of the match. Buoyed by fellow minnow Tonga’s second half stand against New Zealand, Japan confirmed their rising status in world rugby in their best performance against a powerhouse rugby nation to date before a late French flurry eventually sunk John Kirwan’s brave warriors. France played an expansive style of running rugby that, while entertaining and ultimately victorious, allowed a passionate Japanese outfit to leave their own imprint the match.
France began the match as expected, with a running French pack bulldozing through weak Japanese defence from long range to put Julien Pierre over the line in only the fourth minute. Young fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc extended the lead soon after with an opportunistic try after stealing a pass in his own half; while the accurate boot of Dimitri Yachvili converted both tries and added two penalties as France looked ominously sharp early on. The spirited Japanese refused to buckle totally under early pressure as James Arlidge settled any early nerves with a penalty before poaching his own failed grubber to break the French line and score under the screaming adulation of his former home crowd. This brief counter by the Cherry Blossoms looked likely to be swept under the rug as France hit back with typically expansive try that, while unconverted, gave the favourites a comfortable 25-11 lead.
The second half exploded into life nine minutes in when a brilliant busting run by Arlidge split the French defence at its heart. Taking the ball to the line at pace, the Kiwi expat burst between Trinh-Duc and the reliable Imanol Harinordoquy before eluding a poor covering defence to score beside the posts. The French were suddenly under pressure at 25-18 and when a further Arlidge penalty brought Japan closer still the crowd, and more importantly the Japanese, smelt an upset of the highest order. To their credit, France stood strong and superior fitness shone through at the end, with three late tries giving a more predictable score-line to an unpredictable game. Japan will take great heart, however, from a display that will be remembered as their greatest effort to date at a World Cup.