Tokyo tango: France face Pumas in 'group of death' opener

Tokyo (AFP) –


France take on dangerous Argentina in their Rugby World Cup opener on Saturday in a crunch fixture that could potentially leave the losers staring into the abyss.

The French, three times World Cup runners-up, are struggling to rediscover the steely form that swept them to the 2011 final, and defeat in Tokyo likely means they would need to beat England in their final Pool C game to avoid missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time.

Argentina, ranked three places below France at 11th in the world, will fancy their chances, having beaten Les Bleus on two of the three previous occasions the teams have met at the World Cup.

The Pumas have a settled side consisting largely of players with the Jaguares, Argentina's Super Rugby franchise, and with mercurial Stade Francais fly-half Nicolas Sanchez pulling the strings, certainly have the weapons to hurt France.

Romain Ntamack starts at fly-half for France, whose head coach Jacques Brunel has included seven players who started in the 44-8 Six Nations thrashing dished out by England at Twickenham.

"We know the qualities of Argentina," said Brunel. "But we have prepared well and we're going to give it everything. The first game is key -- it sets the tone."

Despite their recent struggles, the flamboyant French have the World Cup pedigree to go on a run.

Their 43-31 semi-final upset over New Zealand at Twickenham in 1999 remains one of the most famous wins in the tournament's history.

But Brunel's side will need to be at their snarling, belligerent best from the start against Argentina -- or they could face an early exit with title-chasing England lurking in World Cup's so-called "group of death".

With so much resting on Saturday's game, wing Yoann Huget looked to fire up the French team, insisting they could prove a threat to England, South Africa and defending champions New Zealand in a wide-open World Cup.

"I think we are at the same level as England, New Zealand and South Africa," he said.

"The way we have pulled together since the Six Nations makes me really positive about how far we will go in this competition."

Argentina coach Mario Ledesma made no bones about the significance of the game with the pool's big three expected to trounce Tonga and the United States -- although the Tongans did manage a shock 19-14 victory over the French in 2011.

"The mental aspect will be important to be able to do what you want to do," he said.

"It's the most important game of our lives."