Match Report: Tonga 19 – 14 France

Tonga put a beating on France that wasn’t reflected in the final scoreline. Vincent Clerc dotted down in the last minute of the game to put a bit of a gloss on what was a horrific defeat for a French team utterly lacking in heart and direction.

Huge credit should go to Tonga for their performance this morning/last night. They had a miserable start to the World Cup, caught like a rabbit in the headlights against the Big Brother All Blacks in the tournament opener, and then turned over by a feisty Canadian side in a surprising defeat that more or less ended their challenge for a quarter final place before it had even begun. You wouldn’t have known it from this performance.

The Tongans needed a four try bonus-point victory over the French in order to qualify for the knock-out stages, an objective that seemed almost unthinkable before kick-off. While the Tongans only scored a single try in the match, they should have had two and could have had three. Denis Leami’i – sorry, Samiu Vahafolau – squandered a certain try after a great breakout from the Tongan line, opting not to pass to an open team-mate mere yards from the line and instead taking it into contact. Brainless stuff.

Tongan outhalf and ex-Clonakilty stalwart Kurt Morath was striking the ball well from place-kicks, but unfortunately they weren’t all going over. He finished with 4 from 8, and if he had got some of the easier ones, Tonga would have afforded themselves the cushion to really go for the tries against a rudderless and insipid French outfit that was heavy on reputations and light on performance.

Les Bleus have turned in some abject showings under Marc Lievremont – they got walloped by the Wallabies in November 2010 and were absolutely plowed by les Rosbifs in Twickenham a couple of seasons ago – so it’s not as though they’ve no form in this regard. However, this must have been a particularly disappointing performance for French fans. Tonga are a team ranked a long way below them and haven’t really shown a hell of a lot of form in this tournament. They’re physical and they’ve got a reasonable enough scrum, but they have very little invention and no great depth. One thing they did have in this game was heart. The French? Not so much.

If you go the route of picking a scrum-half at outhalf, you need him to justify the selection and offer something special in the No10 jersey. It’s okay if he makes a few mistakes in a match like this due to unfamiliarity with the position, but to have a mediocre-to-average game that any sort of club outhalf could produce? It’s not enough.

At No8, Lakafia showed more footballing touches than expected, but also less physicality. When Imanol Harinordoquy came off the bench for him in the second half, the gulf in class was evident. Maxime Medard didn’t have a perfect game at fullback, but showed in attack why he’s there – a great runner in broken play. Quick feet, strength, aggression, pace … he was the only French back who accounted for himself.

Maxime Mermoz had some reasonable moments, but is a victim of too much hype. Every Six Nations journalist clamours to announce that he’s going to be the star of the tournament, and he usually makes about twenty minutes before he’s injured. While he at least managed to stay on the pitch for eighty minutes this time around, he hardly had a blinder against pretty undistinguished opponents. Outside him, the usually reliable Aurelian Rougerie was as quiet as a churchmouse.

The French pack just didn’t have the hunger to consistently knock down the big Tongan runners. They just didn’t have it. They weren’t up for the game, and Tonga were.

This seems to be a desperately unhappy French camp, far worse than the Irish bunch in RWC07. This is a p*ss-easy group, and they’ve struggled against Japan [25-21 after an hour] and Canada [25-19 after an hour], been hosed by New Zealand and been beaten by Tonga, ranked thirteenth in the world to their fifth. They look to all intent like a team that wants to go home. Just to break up the squad, get on the plane and go home to their clubs. Get the hell away from a lame duck coaching team, get out of a poisonous atmosphere and try and forget it ever happened.

The Tongans put in a cracking performance, but in the grand scheme of the tournament it was too little, too late. They never seemed to believe that they really had a chance to get the four tries, and were still taking shots at goal – with a 50% kicker – with six minutes to go. This French side were there for the taking in the second half, and a Tongan team with more experience of international rugby might have sensed that and gone for the jugular. It sounds ridiculous to be talking about a bonus point when they only socred one try and it has ended up 19-14, doesn’t it? Personally, the Mole doesn’t think that it’s all that ridiculous. They were by far the better team on the night, with big performances from chunky scrum-half Moa, No8 Ma’afu – who had a couple of great runs in the outside channels – and hooker Lutui, who made himself available to carry time after time after time.

The Mole doesn’t think that this French team can turn it around or put in one big performance. Though he’s sorry to say it, Dusautoir’s leadership is low-key and ineffective, and too many players are ducking responsibility – Lionel Nallet and Rougerie amongst them. Harinodoquy and Nico Mas need to come back into this side for it to regain a bit of pride and fire, and Trinh-Duc to give it a hope of mounting any sort of QF challenge.

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