KUMAMOTO, Japan (AP) — France needs to raise its consistency level at the Rugby World Cup after stuttering past Tonga 23-21 to reach the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Three wins out of three for Les Bleus, but every performance has seen France’s level drop following strong starts against Argentina, the United States and Tonga.
France led 17-0 on this occasion and had other chances in a mostly one-sided first half. Then nerves crept in once more.
“We’re unable to control our second halves, especially at the start of them,” France head coach Jacques Brunel said. “We need to work on that.”
France has won two games by a two-point margin despite having been seemingly in control of both— Argentina also finished 23-21 after France led that one 20-3 at halftime.
The 33-9 win against the U.S lineup was sealed with three late tries from the bench after the Eagles hit back after trailing 12-0 early on.
There are clearly flaws in the French side, and next up is a highly confident England side in what will be a Pool C decider.
“Of course they are a formidable team and we know how difficult it will be,” Brunel said. “Maybe having qualified will liberate us.”
England has conceded just two tries and averages around 40 points per game: winning 35-3 against Tonga, 45-7 against the United States and 39-10 against an Argentina team that played a man short following a red card early in the first half.
Saturday’s encounter against the 2003 champion will be a completely different test than anything so far.
“We like to play these matches against England, they always have that same feel to them,” France captain Jefferson Poirot said. “It will be a good test before our quarterfinal against Wales or Australia.”
Brunel said after the Tonga win that his heavy rotation: 12 players changed following the Argentina game and then 11 changes before taking on Tonga - has kept his players fresh for England and for the quarterfinal the following weekend.
It remains to be seen whether that freshness — such as starting with captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado on the bench against Tonga and the U.S. lineup — has come at the expense of match sharpness.
Still, France’s attack has looked far more potent than in recent years, and has much more variety.
France’s kicking, from flyhalves Romani Ntamack and Camille Lopez, has also been calm and assured. Ntamack sent two penalties over with France creaking against the Tongans to make it 23-14.
Much of the credit for the improvement in France’s play has been attributed to assistant coach Fabien Galthie, and the staff members he brought with him when joining the set up after another dour Six Nations campaign from Les Bleus.
Brunel is widely expected to be replaced by Galthie — a former standout scrumhalf for France — after the tournament ends and remains evasive about his current role.
“What would you like me to be specific about?” Brunel said dismissively. “Like the rest of the staff he contributes to building this team.”