TOKYO (Reuters) - Camille Lopez sent a drop goal looping just over the crossbar 10 minutes from time to give France a 23-21 victory over Argentina in a thrilling climax to a Rugby World Cup Pool C clash at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday.
The three-times World Cup finalists looked set to romp to victory when they took a 20-3 halftime lead but the Pumas stormed back with two second-half tries and briefly took a one-point lead with 11 minutes to go.
Lopez, seconds after coming on as a replacement flyhalf for Romain Ntamack, erased it almost immediately with his left-footed drop kick but Argentina still had a chance to match their stunning 2007 upset of the then-World Cup hosts.
Pumas fullback Emiliano Boffelli was unable to get a late penalty between the posts from 47 metres, though, and the twice World Cup semi-finalists fell to a 10th straight loss and will probably need to beat England to get into the knockout stages.
There will be plenty of questions for France to ponder as well after they threw away a healthy lead built on a dominant first-half performance, some thrilling running rugby and tries from Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont in a four-minute burst.
France captain Guilhem Guirado conceded he thought Argentina had won the game when Boffelli lined up to take his shot at goal but was very pleased with the display before halftime.
“I’m very proud of my boys. It was a tough game but we are very happy to start with a win,” he said.
“In the second half we never controlled the ball or the game but I am very proud of the first half because we were very clinical. When we play like that we are very dangerous.”
Argentina’s crestfallen captain Pablo Matera said his team’s performance in the first 40 minutes was simply not good enough.
“A really bad start from us as a team. Not good enough (to play) for only one half,” he said.
“France didn’t do too much but they took their opportunities and scored points. It’s difficult to come from behind.”
The Pumas had just gone ahead through a 15th-minute Nicolas Sanchez penalty when standout winger Damian Penaud tore off down the right flank from a flat pass and took the French into the Argentine 22 for the first time.
They almost made a mess of recycling the ball but a good pick-up finally got the ball along the line for centre Fickou to cut inside two defenders and touch down.
Penaud was again in the thick of the action for the second try in the 22nd minute, wriggling past a couple of defenders close and offloading for scrumhalf Dupont to dart over in the corner.
Ntamack converted both tries from wide out and added two booming penalties to send the French into the break with a spring in their step.
Argentina’s pack had been under the cosh in the first half but redeemed themselves three minutes into the second to trigger the comeback and cut the deficit to 20-10.
Boffelli took a high ball brilliantly to earn a penalty which they kicked to touch before executing the catch-and-drive perfectly to send lock Guido Petti over.
Nine minutes later they did it again, this time rolling a maul from the lineout towards the French line with replacement hooker Julian Montoya touching down and reducing the lead to five points.
Benjamin Urdapilleta, on at flyhalf for the disappointing Sanchez, converted two penalties in nine minutes as France’s discipline deserted them but the Pumas’ 21-20 lead was to prove insufficient.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Tony Lawrence