Spectre of 2011 haunts injury-hit France against Tonga
Kumamoto (Japan) (AFP)
France go into Sunday's clash with Tonga looking to erase an eight-year nightmare and produce a dominant performance that will keep them on track for a World Cup quarter-final.
If Les Bleus beat Tonga in the southern city of Kumamoto and England overcome Argentina this weekend then Jacques Brunel's France should certainly qualify.
A loss for France, or an upset win for Argentina will leave the qualifiers from Pool C undecided until France play England in the final game next weekend.
In the so-called 'group of death', France were unconvincing in beating Argentina and the United States, and they are mindful that the so far winless Tongans pulled off a shock 19-14 win over Les Bleus in the 2011 tournament.
France have also had four players injured out of this tournament, and they have not helped themselves by conceding a total of 25 penalties in their first two games.
They are down to their third halves pairing in as many games, with Baptiste Serin linking up with Romain Ntamack, while prop Jefferson Poirot will lead the side out as the third captain after Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado.
"We are all aware that this match will be a step up from the United States and we are even more focused because we know what happened in 2011," said flanker Charles Ollivon.
"We are aware of the challenge that awaits us. We saw against the United States that if we are not at our best for 80 minutes we could pay a heavy price."
- 'Best win of my career' -
Only four players -- centre Sofiane Guitoune, hooker Camille Chat, lock Paul Gabrillagues and wing Alivereti Raka -- remain from the side struggled for most of their match against the USA.
They were only ahead 12-9 with 15 minutes to play before a late rally blew the score out to 33-9.
Against Argentina they led 20-3 before falling behind and needed a late drop goal to win 23-21.
"We're unbeaten but we haven't exactly set the world alight," said coach Jacques Brunel.
"Tonga play with a lot of force, they are very aggressive and enterprising. It's a big challenge."
Three members of the current French squad and two Tongans played in the classic battle eight years ago.
Maxime Medard, who starts at fullback on Sunday, as well as Guirado and Picamoles played for France, with Ntamack's father Emile the assistant coach. Flanker Sione Kalamafoni and centre Siale Piutau turned out for Tonga.
"It was probably the best win of my career," said Piutau, now Tonga's captain, adding it also helped to have six members of his match-day 23 based in France.
"They understand the mindset and psyche of French players. when we beat them in 2011 we had a lot of players who played alongside the French boys and it's definiteley a benefit for us."
France and Tonga both lost two pool matches in 2011, but France progressed because of superior bonus points and they went all the way to the final, where they were beaten 8-7 by New Zealand.
© 2019 AFP