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Full-Time: France 14-19 Tonga

Ah, crazy Marc Lièvremont… What japery! What unpredictablility!

From not selecting a handful of his nation’s finest players to travel to New Zealand, to picking cocky wee lad Morgan Parra to replace the classy Francois Trinh-Duc at fly-half: you never know quite what you’re going to get.

Tonight/this morning, he’ll be hoping his men rediscover their form against a tenacious, if not reliably effective, Tongan line-up.

France– Médard, Clerc, Rougerie, Mermoz, Palisson, Parra, Yachvili; Poux, Servat, Ducalon, Pape, Nallet, Dusatoir, Bonnaire, Lakafia.

Tonga— Lilo, Iongi, Piutau, Ma’ilei, Hufanga, Morath, Moa; Tonga-uiha, Lutui, Pulu, Lokotui, Hehea, Kalamafoni, Maka, Ma’foni.

France cruise straight into the lead, Yachvili converting a 36-metre penalty.

France 3-0 Tonga

Tonga go through the phases in midfield, clattering into the French line repeatedly, but making little ground…

The Tongan opening salvo has taken its physical toll: Parra took his time returning to his feet after shipping a massive hit from Maka, and Poux’ been withdrawn for a blood injury.

Tonga get off the mark! The Pacific islanders capitalise on their possession through the boot of Kurt Morath, who’s enjoyed a fine World Cup in point-scoring terms.

France 3-3 Tonga

Hufanga makes Rougerie look a bit of a muppet by collecting a high ball within metres of his own line and arcing his run around the centre, who just can’t get near him.

Rougerie nearly atones for his lack of defensive anticipation by attempting an ambitious offload to Dusatoir. The ball finds the hands of blood-substitute Vahafolau.

Tonga scare the French line by interfering at the lineout and dispatching a low punt downfield. Palisson wins the foot-race and shrugs Ma’afu’s attempted tackled before clearing downfield.

Tonga are awarded a penalty just inside the right touchline. It’s in within Morath’s range, but the fly-half drags it wide of the posts.

France are penalised for some shenanigans at the breakdown, giving Tonga a promising offensive platform…

A ping-pong exchange of high balls opens play up favour of Tonga, but Hufanga– who looked clear through–  is caught offside.

Les Bleus claim a lineout inside the Tongan half and form a rolling maul. Shrewdly, their opponents opt not to contest it and take a step backwards. French bewilderment ensures.

Yachvili safely converts France’s second penalty after Tonga struggles to cope with some aggressive interplay between Mermoz and Lakafia.

France 6-3 Tonga

Try for Tonga! A cracking cross-field kick from Morath finds Hufanga on the right wing. The No11 has time to let the ball bounce before claiming it and charging off. He looks certain to be dragged into touch before crossing the line, but Bonnaire’s tackle is a poor one.

Morath, the architect of the move, makes the converison.

France 3-10 Tonga

France spurn a try-scoring opportunity, when Servat, breaking from the heart of a collappsed maul, tries to stetch over the line. He had support, but tried to force the issue, needing a double-movement to cross the line.

Pulu put his neck on the line to stop the hooker (literally). It doesn’t look pretty in slow-motion.

Tonga are winning the war of attrition in midfield, progressing inexorably in the direction of the French line.

Frustrated, Lakafia drifts offside… penalty! Morath makes no mistake, a soft draw bringing the ball back inside the right post.

France 6-13 Tonga

The fulcrum about which the French team should revolve, the half-back pairing of Parra and Yachvili, has been completely ineffectual.

France are awarded a penalty when Hufanga meets Vincent Clerc in contact, turning him and driving him to the ground. The incident immediately draws the attention of the referee, who after consulting with his assistants, brandishes the yellow card.

The crowd boos the decision, but in retrospect, Hufanga was lucky: he could have seen red.

A careless fumble from Poux, his head swathed in bandages, brings the half to a close…

Half-time: ITV’s Michael Lynagh sums it up:

“[France] look like a bunch of guys that’s been cobbled together for a game of touch rugby in the park.”

Too right. Moments of incisive running aside, Les Bleus have looked rudderles and weak in contact. If Tonga can cope with Hufanga’s temporary loss and then succeed in stretching their lead, France could find themselves on the plane home.

Ou est Harinordoquy? Ou est Trinh-Duc?

Bafflingly, France start the second half with the same line-up. Less bafflingly, the fail to claim the restart and immediately begin to roll backwards under the weight of the Tongan offence. Les Bleus concede the penalty

… but Morath pulls the effort wide of the left post.

The camera flicks to Marc Lievremont, who’s sitting back in his chair, tie askew, tapping his fingers frustratedly on the edge of the tabletop.

Says it all, really.

Moa, the Tongan scrum-half, is running the show in midfield, a paragon of commanding and imaginative playmaking.

France, on the other hand, can’t even find touch with their penalty kicks now, Medard the latest blue-shirted type to come a cropper.

Dmitri Szarzevski and Imanol Harinordoquy are ready to come on…

France win a penalty after Taumalolo announces his arrival on the field of play by shoulder-charging Morgan Parra. He’s incredibly lucky to stay on the field.

France 9-13 Tonga

Tonga rampage to within a couple of metres of the try-line, eventually tempting a desperate French defence into drifting offside (Szarzewski). They opt for the lineout, but the delivery is a poor one, leaving the islanders without any momentum. The ball’s turned and Medard clears to touch.

Things are really beginning to open now. France, realising the gravity of the situation, are beginning to look more enthusiastic in possession, but as they stream forward, they’re leaving room for speculative kicks over the top.

Morath brings a lengthy period of enterprising Tongan possession to an end by attempting (another) audacious cross-field kick to Hufanga. The wing can’t out-jump Rougerie, though, and the ball skips out of play.

Sustitutions:

France– Ducalon, Barcella, Pierre, Trinh-Duc, Estebanez.

Ooooomph! An enormous hit from Kalamafoni brings Yachvili to ground. Stunned, the scrum-half clings to the ball and concedes a penalty…

… but Morath again drags the ball wide of the left post.

A cushioned pass from Morath in midfield frees Piutau, who blazes towards the French line. For a second, it looks like the centre can go all the way, but he’s forced to offload ten metres short of the line. Tonga set up camp and lauch a series of pick-and-goes, but– as play drifts towards the left wing– lose the ball forward.

Argh!

Estabanez is an idiot! With the moment crying out for equanimity and imagination, the centre decides to attempt a spear tackle. In front of the referee. It’s a straight yellow card, and as he trudges from the field, Morath dispatches a kick between the posts.

France 9-16 Tonga

Ma’afu, running diagnonally from right-to-let, skirts the French defence and slings a high pass onto the wing. France can’t cope and concede advantage to their opponents. Morath, seeing the referee’s arm raised, attempts a drop-goal. It rebounds off the right post…

… but his second effort’s there!

France 9-19 Tonga

Again, Ma’afu breaks the line, streaming away in search of a try. He’s got support on both shoulders, but takes the slower option, passing back inside. Tonga try to drive over the line, but are halted inches short. After going upstairs to confirm that no try was scored, the referee awards a penalty to Tonga.

With the French defence in disarray, Tonga miss a golden opportunity to take a quick one. Instead, Morath sends another one wide of the posts.

A French kick downfield causes mayhem, with a trio of blue shirts eventually bringing a red one to ground across the try line.

France, with a scrum five metres short, only need three points to guarantee a place in the quarter-final. After a couple of stalemates, Harinordoquy spins away, ball in hand. He’s brought to ground under the posts and awarded a penalty…

BUT FRANCE OPT FOR THE SCRUM!

Try for France! I don’t know what they were thinking– a massive breakdown in communication!– but it worked out okay in the end. France use their scrum under the posts as a means of releasing Vincent Clerc into the right corner.

France 14-19 Tonga

Full-time: Yachvili’s (unsuccessful) conversion attempt from the right wing brings proceedings to a close.

France progresss to the next round in spite of themselves. That final-minute decision to spurn an attempt on goal was a horrendous and potentially catastrophic piece of game-management, only underscoring the extent to which their squad and management team are pulling in different directions.

Morath will be ruing those missed penalties and the Tongan side at-large their three glorious try-scoring opportunities. Their bravery in contact, however, was at times a sight to behold. They’ve gathered for a morale-boosting huddle under the posts, no doubt trying to focus on the positives.

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