France loses 19-14 to Tonga but into quarters
Updated: October 01, 2011, 03:22
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Vincent Clerc's last-ditch try secured for France a World Cup quarterfinal spot despite an upset 19-14 loss to Tonga in a bruising encounter on Saturday night.
Tonga dominated a disheveled France team and led 19-9 until Clerc's fifth try of the tournament - clinically taken in the right corner - deep in stoppage time. But the Tongans failed to score the four tries they needed for a bonus point to reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
Because France lost by less than eight points it got the bonus point it needed to ensure second place in Pool A, regardless of whether Canada causes an upset against New Zealand on Sunday on the same ground.
"We played really bad rugby,'' France captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "Obviously, if we play like this we're not going to have any chance of making the semifinals.''
Winger Suka Hufanga scored Tonga's only try.
Unless Canada pulls off an even bigger shock on Sunday in the same Wellington Regional Stadium, Tonga will finish third in the pool and be guaranteed a place in the 2015 World Cup.
"They played with heart, they played with urgency,'' Dusautoir said, praising Tonga.
Hufanga scored following a breakdown in communication in France's midfield, and only a combination of dropped passes, knock-ons, and poor judgement prevented more tries as France held on desperately in what must rank as one of its worst ever World Cup performances.
Coach Marc Lievremont's team had to play with a man less when replacement center Fabrice Estebanez was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the 65th minute, and the pressure should have told more.
Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath landed four penalties, while scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili landed three for France.
With a little under seven minutes left, Tonga still needed three tries, but if Samiu Vahafolau had made the right pass rather than trying to bulldoze through fullback Maxime Medard, the nervous French could well have capitulated.
Yachvili settled the nerves with a penalty straight down the middle in the second minute, with most of the 32,763 fans screaming for Tonga and drowning out France's smaller support.
France prop Jean-Baptiste Poux was bloodied to the head in the early exchanges, setting the scene for what was a sometimes rough match featuring two yellow cards, with Tonga also losing Hufanga late in the first half for a dangerous tackle on Clerc.
Within minutes of Yachvili's penalty, Morath pulled Tonga level from the left, but his kicking proved wayward after that.
After Poux was replaced by Fabien Barcella, going off for treatment to his head cut, France squandered a good attacking move when center Aurelien Rougerie broke through a couple of tackles but offloaded the ball to a Tonga player.
That error was indicative of a scrappy opening 20 minutes from both sides, punctuated by rushed passes, spilled catches and hopeful punts.
After No. 8 Raphael Lakafia was held up close to the line, Tonga infringed again to give Yachvili an easy kick in front of the posts to make it 6-3.
Tonga captain Finau Maka taunted France in the buildup to the match by saying its centers were the weak link, and the opening try stemmed from careless French passes.
Morath seized on the loose ball and placed a perfectly weighted kick into the right corner for Hufanga. He palmed away flanker Julien Bonnaire's tackle, span and placed the ball in the corner. Morath converted from a narrow angle to make it 10-6.
Only desperate defense on the line prevented France hooker William Servat getting the ball through a forest of Tongan legs, then Morath increased the pressure with another penalty when the French were offside to make it 13-6.
But Tonga needed tries, as well as points on the board, and the momentum was cut just as it was building when Hufanga was sin-binned.
Even with the extra man, France looked in trouble as Tonga pressured from the beginning of the second half and Morath wasted another chance to extend his team's lead when his penalty drifted wide.
Unable to generate any attacking momentum, France kicked aimlessly, with makeshift flyhalf Morgan Parra and Yachvili both failing to find touch, while Francois Trinh-Duc, the first-choice flyhalf for the last three years, sat on the bench.
Parra, who was a scrumhalf until Lievremont decided to make him into a No. 10 against the All Blacks, tackled gamely but lacked the organizational skills required for that position and his backs suffered.
Yachvili's steady boot kept France within touching distance when he landed a 40-meter kick to make it 13-9, but Tonga came charging back at the French defense, only for scrumhalf Taniela Moa to waste a try opportunity with a poor pass inside.
Mermoz threatened to break through with a winding run in the 55th and, just as it seemed France would finally get the pressure-easing try it needed, Mermoz changed his mind, passing inside instead and the move broke down.
With 20 minutes remaining, Lievremont finally sent on Trinh-Duc.
Shortly after, Morath's poor day with the boot continued as he missed another kick from the left, but France simply could not get out of its half and Tonga winger Viliame Iongi burst down the line and was held up just short.
Estebanez went on for Rougerie but did his teammates no favors when he was sin-binned and Morath slotted over to make it 16-9.
Iongi knocked on again with 10 minutes left as France's weak flank was exposed yet again, but with France seemingly unable to stop making mistakes - this time it was Dusautoir who got offside - Morath made it 19-9.
Clerc's 30th international try and 10th in the World Cup spared some embarrassment.
Tonga 19 (Suka Hufanga try; Kurt Morath 4 penalties, conversion), France 14 (Vincent Clerc try; Dimitri Yachvili 3 penalties). HT: 13-6.