The French rollercoaster ride of New Zealand continues as they face Tonga in the penultimate match of Pool A in Wellington today, 6pm local time. Holding ten points going into the final round, France have one foot in the quarterfinals already – their less fancied opponents are the only remaining team in contention for second place but require not only an upset victory but an additional bonus point to equal the French tally. The French have shown their ability to play outstanding running rugby in patches through the tournament but have failed to dominate teams in the manner expected of a nation ranked fourth in the world; high final scores against Japan and Canada were only indicative of France’s superior fitness in the later stages of two tight matches. Tonga’s second half performance against New Zealand remains their best showing of the tournament; the Island nation proved their ability to front against greater opposition despite a poor performance against Canada and have the firepower, if not the consistency, to rattle a misfiring French outfit.
Marc Lievremont has persevered with the unusual combination of regular scrumhalves Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra in the halves, leaving fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc on the bench. The backs are stacked with flair outside this, as Alexis Palisson earns his first start of the tournament on the wing in a back-line that appears to be close to full strength. William Servat returns to the pack at hooker to solidify the scrum, while Raphael Lakafia starts at No.8 in a powerful line-up.
Tonga traditionally base their game around extreme physical prowess, one which even the vaunted All Blacks pack struggled to defuse at times in the opening game. The pack looks to be no different, with captain Finau Maka making a welcome return from injury in one of just two changes in the forwards. The backs see a further two changes: Andrew Ma’ilei is brought into the midfield while Viliame Iongi replaces a quiet Fetu’u Vainkolo out wide.
Players to Watch:
Finau Maka mentioned the French midfield as a potential weakness midweek; his words may ring true if incisive centre Siale Piutau replicates his good tournament form with another impressive showing.
Vincent Clerc has played every game in the World Cup so far and already has four tries to his name, including a hat-trick against Canada. The diminutive winger looked the most dangerous spark against New Zealand without scoring and will look to carry this form into the quarterfinals with another excellent showing tonight.
France: 1. Jean-Baptiste Poux, 2. William Servat, 3. Luc Ducalcon, 4. Pascal Pape, 5. Lionel Nallet, 6. Thierry Dusautoir (c), 7. Julien Bonnaire, 8. Raphael Lakafia, 9. Dimitri Yachvili, 10. Morgan Parra, 11. Alexis Palisson, 12. Maxime Mermoz, 13. Aurelien Rougerie, 14. Vincent Clerc, 15. Maxime Medard.
Reserves: 16. Dimitri Szarzewski, 17. Fabien Barcella, 18. Julien Pierre, 19. Imanol Harinordoquy, 20. Francois Trinh-Duc, 21. Fabrice Estebanez, 22. Cedric Heymans.
Tonga: 1. Soane Tonga’uiha, 2. Aleki Lutui, 3. Kisi Pulu, 4. Tukulua Lokotui, 5. Paino Hehea, 6. Sione Kalamafoni, 7. Finau Maka (c), 8. Viliami Ma’afu, 9. Taniela Moa, 10. Kurt Morath, 11. Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 12. Andrew Ma’ilei, 13. Siale Piutau, 14. Viliame Iongi, 15. Vungakoto Lilo.
Reserves: 16. Ephraim Taukafa, 17. Alisona Taumalolo, 18. Halani Aulika, 19. Joseph Tuineau, 20. Samiu Vahafolau, 21. Thomas Palu, 22. Alipate Fatafehi.