KOBE, Japan (Reuters) - Argentina’s defeat to France in their Pool C opener may prove to be a mortal wound for their World Cup campaign but the Pumas are determined to put that loss behind them and will settle for nothing short of a bonus-point win over Tonga on Saturday.
Semi-finalists in 2007 and 2015, Argentina trailed 20-3 in the first 40 minutes at Tokyo Stadium and while they fought back to take a one-point lead with 11 minutes left a Camille Lopez drop goal sealed victory for France.
With England expected to top the group and grab one of the two quarter-final places on offer, Argentina must now beat Tonga handily to have any chance of pipping France to the second qualifying berth.
Centre Jeronimo de la Fuente was at a loss to explain their poor start last Saturday.
“What pains us is how well we played in one half and how badly in the other, knowing all the time that we are perfectly capable of playing 80 minutes of high-intensity, intelligent and fast rugby,” he said.
“We are fully aware of how important the clash with France was, and it hurt to lose.
“We are fully confident that we will show up against Tonga, and against England and the USA afterwards.”
The South Americans can count themselves lucky to still be able to call on winger Matias Moroni, who escaped with a warning from the citing commissioner after pulling the hair of an opponent at the end of the France game, which descended into a brawl after the final whistle.
Back-rower Tomas Lezana says Argentina simply cannot afford another slow start against Tonga.
“We must look to impose our game from the get-go and when we defend, dominate them immediately,” he said, predicting a huge physical battle up front at the Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka.
“It will be a crunch, without a question.
“Tonga is a very physical team and I think we should keep to our set-pieces and redouble our efforts on defence as well as the contact area, since the game will no doubt veer in that direction.”
The Tongans lost 35-3 to England in their pool opener on Sunday, a defeat that also cost them the services of flyhalf Kurt Morath (throat) and centre Nafi Tuitavake (arm) for the rest of the tournament.
The Pacific islanders still bear the scars from their previous World Cup encounter with Argentina in 2015.
While they won plenty of admirers for their spirited effort in losing 45-16 that day, for some of the players it was the physical aspect of the game they remember most.
“I don’t remember much, but I remember this,” said flanker Sione Kalamafoni, pointing to a scar on his right knee.
“It’s from that game.”
Tonga were keen to show they could compete on rugby’s biggest stage, Kalamafoni added, and bemoaned the fact they “didn’t throw a punch” when presented with opportunities deep in English territory at the Sapporo Dome.
“Now we’re hoping to fix those little mistakes. Argentina are a good team, though, and we have to give them respect.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty