KUMAMOTO, Japan (Reuters) - France survived a frantic Tonga fightback to grind into the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday with a nerve-jangling 23-21 win that only just banished the ghosts of their shock loss to the Pacific islanders at the 2011 tournament.
The thriller at balmy Kumamoto Stadium saw France join Pool C rivals England in the knockout stages, sending Tonga crashing out of the tournament with three successive defeats while also knocking out Argentina and the United States.
In a dramatic finale, flanker Zane Kapeli collected a cross-kick for a last-gasp try, Latiume Fosita’s conversion then bringing the Tongans within two points with under a minute left.
But France winger Damian Penaud, caught out of position for Tonga’s last try, soared high to tap back the re-start and allow France to hold on to the siren.
“Today it was different to what we wanted to do — it was quite a hard game,” France coach Jacques Brunel told reporters.
“The most important thing is that we got our ticket to the quarter-finals, so I’m happy about that.”
Tonga, whose 19-14 win over Les Bleus in New Zealand eight years ago remains a fairytale chapter in World Cup folklore, were 17-0 down on the cusp of halftime but battled back valiantly.
For a fleeting moment, it seemed there could be a repeat of the Wellington result but two second-half penalties from the assured boot of young flyhalf Romain Ntamack gave the French a cushion that proved just sufficient.
“Definitely frustrated, again we didn’t get off to the best of starts and that probably told in the end,” said Tonga coach Toutai Kefu.
“The guys dug in there, there was a period in the second half when the game was in the balance and the guys hung in and hung in. You can’t question their effort.”
Having cemented second place in the pool behind England, three-times finalists France now head to Yokohama seeking victory over Eddie Jones’s men for a kinder route through the knockout rounds.
France had laboured to a 33-9 win over the United States on Wednesday but were switched on from the first whistle on Sunday, and the flair and enterprise of Virimi Vakatawa and Alivereti Raka quickly caught the eye.
Winger Raka burst away from a botched Tongan lineout before off-loading to centre Vakatawa for France’s first try in the fifth minute as France went 10-0 up.
“For me, happy playing next to another Fijian,” Raka said of his partnership with Vakatawa. “We talk a lot and we are talking on the same level so it’s easy for us.”
France lost momentum after their fast start, with handling errors and passes floating forward and wide, but their defence remained solid and they hit top gear again when scrumhalf Baptiste Serin caught Tonga napping with a quick-tap penalty, whipping the ball wide to a charging Raka who kicked a grubber past the last defender and collected it on the try-line.
Tonga needed to respond and did so through forward muscle. Snatching the ball out of a ruck and leaping for the line, scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua was rewarded with a try after a lengthy TMO review to give Tonga a huge boost and make it 17-7 at halftime.
The match turned on its head shortly after the break, with a thrilling try to France flanker Charles Ollivon ruled out by the TMO due to a forward pass.
Tonga immediately won a turnover with a bone-jarring tackle in midfield and winger Cooper Vuna hoofed the ball down-field where it bounced wickedly and straight into the arms of gleeful centre Malietoa Hingano who barged over.
With the ghosts of 2011 stirring, France redoubled their intensity at the breakdown and the pressure told as Tonga’s discipline waned. Ntamack knocked over a pair of penalties to give his team breathing space at 23-14 and the match appeared settled when winger Damien Penaud cantered over in the 68th minute.
But again, the try was cancelled to leave French fans howling, with a knock-on by fullback Maxime Medard spotted by the TMO and setting up Tonga for their last desperate yet fruitless charge.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Tony Lawrence