Tonga produced a classic World Cup moment in a remarkable 19-14 win over France tonight as the French procured a quarterfinal spot by the narrowest of margins. The odd combination of Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra in the halves did nothing to enhance the troubled reputation of French coach Marc Lievremont as the physical Tongan approach unnerved their more technically gifted opposites throughout the game. A score-line featuring one try apiece obscured Tonga’s dominance somewhat in a match that exemplified the rising reputation of Pacific Island rugby as a genuine threat to established nations.
France looked to have contained Tonga’s physical threat in cut-and-thrust opening quarter, kicking two penalties to one before Tonga threw the game open with fifteen minutes remaining in the half. With left wing Alexis Palisson lying injured mid-field, Kurt Morath executed a pinpoint cross-kick into open space for Sukanaivalu Hufanga to collect; the wing three-quarter rounded the covering defence of flanker Julien Bonnaire to finish tidily in the corner before Morath nailed a touch-line conversion to give Tonga a four point lead. A further penalty took the score to 13-6 as Tonga attacked the rattled French; however a spear-tackle by Hufanga left the try-scorer sin-binned to nullify Tongan momentum as France attacked to no avail in the final minute of a thrilling half.
Despite starting the half with 14 men and losing inspirational captain Finau Maka to injury before the restart, Tonga attacked from the outset of the second half as France struggled to impose themselves on the game. An early penalty miss from Morath looked crucial but the Islanders continued to attack as Hufanga sat in the bin, keeping Les Blues trapped in their own half as the French kicked poorly in face of constant pressure. Tonga returned to their full complement only to concede three points to further indiscretion in the tackle; with a bonus point needed for quarterfinal qualification, the Islanders began to spread the ball through a dangerous backline. The French are no strangers to running rugby either, opening the game considerably as Marc Lievremont emptied his bench in search of inspiration although Tonga continued to look far more threatening. Substitute Fabrice Estebanez then broke French by leaving his country with 14 men of their own, the result of the second spear tackle of the game. Tonga missed two clear scoring opportunities in the last ten minutes, diminishing any hope of an unexpected quarterfinal spot; the French rallied far too late as a late try could not deny Tonga a famous victory.