France is all set to face England so as to decide who tops Pool C on Saturday after they finally dismantled a staggering Tonga. The french squad put in a characteristically fitful display, running into a 17-point ahead before being reeled in, then rallying before a late Tonga try set up a frantic finale.
Moreover, Damian Penaud reclaimed Camille Lopez’s restart to end the underdogs’ hopes of snatching victory. Winners from Pool C’s will play against the runners-up in Pool D in the last eight.
Meanwhile, Australia is most likely to finish second in Pool D, while Wales hopes to top that group if they can negotiate games against Uruguay and Fiji.
France started the match at a canter as powerful centre Virimi Vakatawa went over from Alivereti Raka’s one-handed pass. Then when scrum-half Baptiste Serin spotted a unmarked Raka and the chance to tap and heads for a second score, Jacques Brunel’s side were 17-0 up after 35 minutes of the game.
Just as it was in their opening game against Argentina..when they permitted the Pumas back in the game from 20-3 down – France concentration shaken.
Newcastle’s Sonatane Takulua dived over from a very close range just before the break as Tonga’s forwards fought their way into the ascendancy.
France full-back Maxime Medard paid the price for allowing the ball to bounce early in the second half as Malietoa Hingano pounced to power over.
With their advantage shaved down to three points, the sense that a repeat of Tonga’s upset victory in the 2011 pool stages may be brewing stung France back into life. They advantageously closed-up their play and fly-half Romain Ntamack landed two penalty goals to put his side 23-14.
Penaud dived over to also drop the game beyond doubt, but that was going to play out differently as referee Nic Berry, belatedly, though correctly, ruled out that score for a knock-on by Medard, and then Tonga flanker Zane Kapeli claimed a cross-field kick and dotted down.
Replacement Latiume Fosita slotted the conversion putting Tonga within two points as they prepared to receive kick-off with less than a minute to go.
Notwithstanding scraping past an opponent his own side saw off 35-3 in the tournament opener, England head coach Eddie Jones would have seen how France can threaten his team.
Raka and Penaud both showed their high quality as strike runners capable of beating a defense with moments of individual intelligence, while scrum-half Antoine Dupont was lively around the edge of the breakdown after he came on with 25 minutes remaining.